Sunday, December 26, 2010

Charisma: A Misunderstood Concept

I often demarcate the difference between non-charismatic individuals exhibiting charismatic traits and a bona fide charismatic personality. The key to understanding the difference between the two perspectives lies in the ability to determine when something is similar, but not that thing itself. For example, one might describe a color as “pinkish.” Although it looks pink, it has differences that suggest it is not altogether the color pink. The same analogy applies to charismatic traits versus the charismatic personality. Charismatic traits may be better defined as “charisma-ish.” It may appear that we are splitting hairs here between the manifestations of something versus the purist form of a thing. However, concepts and definitions have very little meaning and utilitarian value if we cavalierly misuse or misappropriate terms due to lazy intellectualism or because something is illusory.

When we ascribe charismatic traits as being the end all to describing a charismatic personality, we dilute or taint the “specialness” and rarity of charismatic personalities. In fact, pure charismatic personalities are so rare that it requires observers a period of time to determine if they are witnessing actual charisma or mere glimpses of it. The charismatic personality, which is driven by an internal passion and missionary zeal, may show sparks of charisma throughout the charismatic’s life and at other times remain dormant. In other words, the charismatic personality is not always exhibiting charisma. He is not constantly spewing nuggets of wisdom or astounding the world with his brilliance. Often, he may be “picking his spots,” or looking for advantages to further his mission when times are not the most ideal for movement. When nothing appears to be going on at the surface, great preparation is being mobilized at the visceral level. This is a far cry from merely possessing highly evolved interpersonal communication skills.

If one were to peruse the mind of a charismatic personality, he would see pulsating energy, filled with color and verve, with seemingly discordant concepts loping after one another. This kaleidoscopic picture would inspire great emotions similar to the fast pace action at a circus, but it would all be aligned and sequential, if the charismatic personality was asked to explain it. The charismatic personality lives in the field of ideas and thus needs an inordinate amount of information in his efforts to complete a mission. Active listening, storytelling, eye contact and strategic touching are means of connecting to others to gain buy in. These traits are used to engage others by creating a sense of connection and magnetism as a conduit for moving the mission along.

Non-charismatic Individuals, who utilize charismatic traits, often have short term goals. Politicians, salesmen, and businessmen use these traits to achieve a limited goal like getting elected, making a sale, or being promoted. The charismatic personality uses the same trait as a long term strategy for transforming or revolutionizing an industry, country or status quo. For the charismatic personality there is no real separation between the trait and the actual personality. The non-charismatic is “acting,” and separates the action from his personality. The magnitude of the objective as well as an insatiable desire to achieve a goal play a large part in determining if one is viewing charismatic traits or the components of the charismatic personality. The charismatic personality has a long term objective, because he has committed his life to transforming an idea, structure or mode of thinking. The relentless, insatiable desire to obtain a goal bigger than himself is the root of the charismatic personality versus those merely exhibiting charismatic traits with limited scope.

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Monday, December 20, 2010

Charisma: The Challenges of Open Communication

Charismatic personalities are often celebrated for their ability to articulate and maintain a strong command of language. To the charismatic personality, language is a double-edge sword that can build or tear down with equal intensity. While the charismatic personality is consciously aware of the power of words, he uses words as a source of influence and control. As a thinker, he knows intellectually how to generate specific responses to stimuli, but as one who loses himself in the field of ideas, he may not always be cognizant of the power of his words or his actions. Sounds contradictory? How can one be in tune with his power over words and still allows this knowledge to become lost in the field of ideas? This can occur because charismatic personalities often view ideas with less sensitivity than the emotions of others. People are the conduit by which ideas are manifested and often may take a backseat to the ideas themselves. In the field of ideas, charismatic personalities can experiment with various thoughts and precepts. Ideas are not emotional and do not take off-handed or misperceived comments personally. On the contrary, people take every nuance and connotation of language to heart. Thus, charismatic personalities must be ever vigilant over their words, because the passion and assuredness by which they speak can cause extreme chaos. The best place for charismatic personalities to frolic in the field of ideas is alone, because once ideas are brought to the masses; they must be delivered gently when emotions run high and forcefully when emotions are low. In this respect, charismatic personalities who speak cavalierly about critical issues do so at their own peril. If Carlyle’s idea of people being hard-wired for hero worshipping is accepted, then the deification of the charismatic personality beckons for a high degree of circumspection.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

Charisma: Does Measuring It Make It Valid?

Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus assert in “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge,” that “charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around.” A recent report on the measurability of charisma co-authored by Kenneth Levine, Communications Studies Professor at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, suggests that traits like: empathy, good listening skills, eye contact, enthusiasm, self-confidence and skillful speaking are measurable by social scientists. After surveying students to assess the means of defining and characterizing charisma, these learnable traits were viewed as the hallmark of charisma. Following this line of thinking to its logical conclusion suggests that any individual demonstrating these traits would be described as charismatic. In this sense, charisma would be the affectation of certain physical traits, not a specific personality trait or worldview. In this context, charismatic traits are not inborn, but learned. Going even farther, one could assert that the world would have more charismatic leaders if only more individuals possessed these physical traits. This notion is contrary to the work established by Charisma Researcher Edward Brown of Core Edge Image & Charisma Institute.

Brown asserts that traits like eye contact, effective listening skills, enthusiasm, passion and other traits are the manifestations of charisma, not charisma in its pristine form. If everyone learned the skills for becoming more charismatic, there would not be a larger number of charismatic leaders, but a larger number of people demonstrating charismatic traits. Brown is careful to not “split hairs,” when demarcating the differences. The likes of Adolph Hitler, Alexander Hamilton and Martin L. King, Jr. represent perspectives of grand ideas that transcend the physical mannerisms of charismatic personalities. Charismatic traits are the means by which charismatic leaders express ideas. The reason there would not be more charismatic leaders in the world if more people learned these behaviors (greater eye contact, empathy, effective listening, etc…) is because these individuals would not necessarily be motivated by compelling ideas. This is the critical distinction between charismatic personalities and individuals exhibiting charismatic traits. In addition, when charisma is measured based on these physical attributes, the results could be a “false positive.” Yes, one may score high on charismatic mannerisms, but low on the ability to create transformational ideas. The distinction can be characterized as one merely going through the motions versus one who thinks, feels, analyzes, synthesizes and embodies a crusade or mission. To relegate charismatic leaders to mere “actors” would suggest that behind the mask is a chameleon who seeks merely to inspire good feelings within others rather than transform a specific human condition. This is largely why charismatic leaders have been more effective during times of crisis and instability. Charismatic leaders believe they are best suited for the situation at hand, which encompasses ego, narcissism, insecurity and visions of grandeur which are inextricable traits within charismatic personalities. Individuals who score high on charismatic scales would view such traits as oppositional to their self-image as well as antithetical to their ideals on charisma.

Measuring charisma and its manifestation is valuable for developing more effective interpersonal skills within organizations. The ability to coordinate and create alliances will always be indispensable to the viability of organizations. However, there must be a distinction between what it means to be congenial versus what it means to be transformational within organizations. To confuse the two would merely create more questions than answers.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

Charisma, Products and Passion

The difference between a star and a genuine charismatic personality hinges on the star’s willingness to merely be a product and the charismatic personality’s need and desire to lead a crusade. To go a step further, it is the difference between a movie star and an artist/actor. The movie star makes movies to be popular, while an artist builds a body of work demonstrating the range and variations of his talent. A movie star may have a body of work, but it is like a high school student who joins organizations to enhance his resume for college consideration compared to a student who campaigns for student government, because he is preparing for a future in politics. The two individuals may very well become successful, but the future politician engenders something much greater than the “resume builder.” The student government official, artist and charismatic personality all have one thing in common---passion. Each is driven by a goal that begins with incremental steps leading to a grand design. It is the difference between Matthew McConaughey and Johnny Depp; Jerry Springer and Ted Koppel and Cornell West and Stephen Hawking. One group panders to the low brow in the theater of the absurd, while the other passionately and carefully considers each step to a compelling goal. Depp, Koppel and Hawking can provide a cogent, consistent reason for their work that has not deviated from the first time they opted towards their medium of expression. The difference between the two schools of thought is largely philosophical based on a specific worldview. The product driven individual sees the world as a business where fame and popularity can be traded. The passionate creator believes the body of work done properly and carefully can be profitable without having to look outside the medium for expression. To be sure, both parties realize the economic realities of the world, but choose to go about it differently. A disparity in the human will for excellence emerges when the goal of the individual is not to master a craft, but leverage it “half developed” for pure profitability.

Too many individuals are opting to take the product driven route without a balance towards the creation of excellence through disciplined passion. To rest future ingenuity and innovation in an environment of mediocrity and apathy is the cessation of what has made civilization great and sparked imaginations beyond our wildest dreams.

Invariably, charisma is a rare trait within any individual no matter what vocation he might participate. But, there is one thing that any individual can embrace under the charisma marquee, the ability and willingness to consider and care for the long term affects of one’s body of work. Passion is only one component of the charismatic personality. However, this one trait can ascend to the highest heights of possibilities when excellence is the goal.

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