Unpacking Influence - Part 3

DrC and I had a bit of a tussle relating to the topic of this entry. I believe that the variable 'charisma' is actually just a subset of Power. He argued compellingly, however, that we need to factor it in as a separate variable. What finally drew me over the line on the property of charisma as something separate from power is referencing historical leaders of both countries and companies. Many start from humble origins and become -- unexpectedly -- powerful. How and why is very important to historical study. One consistent thread that runs through those stories is the word 'charismatic'. It is also referred to as compelling, intense, focused, fascinating, or mesmerising. There is a strange property in some human beings to draw the eye, compel the interest, motivate the soul. Listening to Michael Cohen's testimony as to why he followed Trump for so long finally drew me over the line. Charisma is a unique and specific variable in the Influence equation.

So what is charisma? The simple definition makes it sound pretty good: compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. I find this explanation from Skills You Need really useful as it applies to the topic of Influence: "A charismatic person can not only appear confident in communication but they can also help others feel confident too, thus aiding and enhancing the communication process." Now this is all very benign, even delightful. Our charismatic change agents are good communicators... easy peasy. It's also pretty easy to see the intersection between Charisma and our two other powerful variables Trust and Power. As always, we are looking at a variable that, possessed in high quality and quantity, would be tremendously useful as a tool to change the hearts and minds and direction of others, while in low quality or quantity would render it virtually impossible to do so.

Can you by trustworthy without charisma? Yes. You can be a stand up person, routinely and consistently the nice guy clocking in the hard yards to build trust with your target(s) while still being relatively incapable of expressing yourself clearly and cogently. Maybe we call that Nice But Incoherent. I think we've probably all met that guy. You're never really quite sure what they want, but they are so damn friendly, so consistently going in the right direction, doing the right thing, being the right and just kind of person that you sort of get behind them just hoping that the ideas in their head make more sense than the ones spilling out of their mouths. At the same time, you'd feel no particular desire to 'follow him to the ends of the earth'. Nice, but yeah nah. If you are a change agent with no natural charisma, you can work to build your reputation as someone trustworthy and still be a force for change.

Can you be powerful without charisma? Oh hell yes. Especially when power is derivative of unearned status (say inheritance or nepotism or gender/age/race privilege). You would be situationally powerful and completely and utterly unlikeable. I want to just call this the Trump category but that feels mean spirited as well as (I sincerely hope) specific to this time in history. So let's call these people Powerful But Repellent. There is literally nothing about the powerful, absent charisma, that makes them enjoyable company. You follow them because you have to, not because there is any joy or necessarily any comprehension of the direction or purpose of where they want you to go. If you are a powerful change agent with no natural charisma, you really need to work on your people skills. Otherwise, you are merely exercising raw power with no ability for your targets to imaginatively and proactively go in a direction that you've failed to articulate. 

Can you be influential with ONLY charisma? I feel this is the provenance of Celebrity Influencers. The bottom line is that people are compelled and entertained by this category of change agent, but there is no reason to believe that targets trust the average celebrity or believe in them or find them powerful in ways that are meaningful in their lives. They allow themselves to be influenced to change their behaviour purely because they find the change agent fascinating. If you are a change agent in a 21st century company with internal social media, go to town. You can become tremendously more interesting and influential if you can become a 'celebrity' to the organisation. 

I'm not going to spend a lot of effort running through the basics on how to become more charismatic. Everything I've found on the topic leads me to believe two things: first, real charisma is an inherent personality attribute like extroversion or intelligence. Sidebar: It is not nearly as strongly correlated with physical attractiveness as many would lead you to think. When a person is charismatic, people around them across a spectrum of age differences, relationship types and duration of acquaintance use this same word to describe them. It appears at a young age and for most, continues until their death. This is why I argued with DrC that like any other birth trait (e.g. race or gender or sexual orientation) if should be considered part of the Power equation. It's worth pausing a minute to think to yourself: who do I know who is charismatic? Who routinely fascinates me every time I'm in the room with them? What is it that makes me want to listen to them or do something for them or just spend some time? If you've known them your whole life, has that changed over time? Charismatics way out on the bell curve are like intellectual geniuses and natural athletes -- the property emerges early and only strengthens with practice.

The second thing I've concluded, however, is that because charisma is fundamentally a property of communication and drawing attention, there are ways to either create the impression of a charismatic or to build charisma. To increase your charisma, research and practice everything you care n about active listening, engaging with individuals and groups, and being interesting to other people in a social or business setting. Similarly, while many charismatic people are not particularly attractive, being more interesting to look at is another way to compel the eye and the interest. Think about ways to distinguish yourself physically, visually, and socially. Treat this entire exercise, however, the way you would becoming a runner. Know that there are always those who are 'born to run' and those who work very hard to be able to run well. If you're not a charismatic already, you'll always be in this later category and will need to practice practice practice.

"Charisma only wins people's attention. Once you have their attention, you have to have something to tell them." ~ Daniel Quin