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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