How to be a Charismatic Leader

Before we delve into the topic of how to be a charismatic leader, think about this for just a moment: why do you want to be a charismatic leader? Serious question – please write down your answer before reading further.

Okay. You’ve decided why you want to be a charismatic leader. Now let’s consider how to be one…According to the article “In Search of Charisma” in the July/August 2012 edition of Scientific American Mind, the following are the “3R’s” of effective leadership:

  • reflecting
  • representing
  • realizing.

Reflecting is when the leader takes time to learn and understand the history and culture of the group. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is a strong example of reflecting. Take this passage, for example: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men a created equal.’” In Dr. King’s own words – “It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.” King understood America’s Christian foundation, it’s belief in its founding principles and it’s fascination for progress. His speech touched on all of those deeply rooted beliefs and passions. Dr. King, it should be noted, was considered an extremely charismatic leader.

Representing refers to a leader’s need to be both a supporter and a member of the group. President Ronald Reagan mastered the art of representing. I remember a speech of his where he held up a dollar bill and said this is what a dollar was once worth. Then he held up a quarter, a 25 cent piece, and said that thanks to inflation, this is what that dollar is worth today. He spoke in terms that anyone could understand without patronizing or insulting his audience. He spoke as if he were one of us and not a famous Hollywood actor or the world’s most powerful leader.

Realizing comes about when the leader helps turn the group’s values and principles into  something real. As a society, we revere our children. It is a core value. In the early part of the 20th century, polio epidemics literally crippled thousands of children. In 1938, President Franklin Roosevelt, himself a victim of polio, founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (The March of Dimes) to combat the disease. What he did was a demonstration of putting the value “caring about children” into the reality of “care for children.”

So what do reflecting, representing and realizing, or being an effective leader for that matter, have to do with charisma? It turns out that charisma is not a personal gift that some have and some don’t. Charisma is something attributed to the leader by the group because the group views the leader as someone who is part of them and is advancing their values and interests.

Charismatic leaders don’t tell people what they should believe–they embody what they and the group believe. They weave their personal stories and narratives into the collective stories and narratives of the group. They understand and have interest in those they lead.

At the beginning of this post I asked you to write down why you wanted to be a charismatic leader. If one of the reasons was “I care about and want to help my team” – you’re on your way.

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