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Charm 101: Charisma Can Be Taught

With the death of Steve Jobs, the media's attention has turned to his legacy as a business leader and his ability to inspire teams to create extraordinary products. The man, in short, may have been prickly but he was also extremely charismatic.

Where does that ability to spellbind others to your cause come from? His biographer plumbed Jobs' past for answers, but recently psychologists took a more hands-on approach to the origins of charisma, testing whether this elusive and valuable quality can be explicitly taught.

Turns out, the answer appears to be yes. Researchers out of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland decided to see if charisma boot camp would be effective, conducting 360-degree evaluations of 34 managers and then sending them to a three-month charisma training course where they learned what the researchers dubbed CLTs or charismatic leader tactics. These include verbal techniques such as:

  • Framing through metaphor
  • Stories and anecdotes
  • Demonstrating moral conviction
  • Sharing the sentiments of the collective
  • Setting high expectations
  • Communicating confidence
  • Using rhetorical devices such as contrasts, lists, and rhetorical questions
Body language, facial expression and using an animated tone of voice were also covered. The results, recently published in The Academy of Management Learning and Education, show that these charisma classes worked. "Managers who underwent training saw their charisma ratings significantly grow, relative to those who didn't," according to reports in BPS Occupational Digest.

To double check the results, the researchers also asked 41 MBA students to give the same speech before and after undergoing charisma training. After learning to master their CLTs, the MBA candidates were rated more trustworthy, competent, influential, and moving when they gave their speech.

There are caveats for potential student of charisma. The researchers warn that a significant time commitment is need to improve charisma -- remember their course lasted three months, not a matter of hours. And it's also likely that when a student starts actively attempting to become more charismatic, their performance may get worse before it gets better as their attempts to appear charismatic often come off as stilted and stereotypical at first, leading to more laughs than loyalty.

Still, for the charisma challenged, the research shows that more traits that we think of as inborn are actually teachable. That's good news for those who need to be more charismatic to advance in their careers and perhaps also a call to action for others who have given up on gaining leadership skills because they thought they simply lacked the knack.

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(Image courtesy of Flickr user incredibleguy, CC 2.0)
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