Leadership Skills Essentials: Charisma

Over the last few years I have shared a number of blogs ranging in topics, from leadership to life coaching and communication. This year I will dedicate each of my monthly posts to exploring essential leadership skills, and hope, by doing so, to inspire and provide tangible tools for my community of leaders. If you are not in a leadership position, these blogs will give you the tools to step into the role whenever you are called to it. In my view, leadership is more a way of being than a position, or role, anyway. How you lead your life matters.

I want to start with an essential leadership skill – charisma, and share with you insights I have recently gained by reading a phenomenal book called The Charisma Myth, by Olivia Fox Cabane. I think we can all agree that being charismatic is a key leadership skill – no matter what type of leader you are, if you have no charisma you are much less likely to persuade and inspire. And, without the ability to persuade and inspire, you cannot lead. I have taught charisma indirectly as part of my trainings, mostly focusing on sub-skills that influence charisma, namely: presence, confidence, integrity, compassion, and authenticity. In her book, Cabane demystifies charisma by proving through science that, unlike common belief, charisma is something we can all gain. Although some people are born charismatic, and may act naturally in ways that for others it will take some practice, charisma is a skill you can and should master as a leader.

In her studies, Cabane shares the three primary elements that affect charisma: presence, power and warmth. For each of these elements there are a number of influential factors, from body language, to speech (more in terms of how you deliver the message than the message itself), and external factors, including choice of clothes and status. To me, of all the elements described in her book, the most significant ones relate to state of mind. Your state of mind affect presence, power and warmth more than anything else and it is where you need to start. For example, if you are inpatient, your facial expression and body language will show that, immediately. You can try to circumvent, by focusing on external elements, but sooner or later your internal state will show through. Because human beings are wired to detect body language and facial expressions a lot quicker than spoken words (our reptilian brains have been in existence a lot longer than the pre-frontal cortex where spoken language lives), and because your body responds to your state of mind, what goes on inside you matters

Another example is listening. If you are distracted during an exchange – meaning, your mind is moving away from the conversation at hand, your eyes will show that you are wandering and your facial expression will show that you are not connected. The person you are speaking to will notice that instantaneously. Being present requires that you tame your ‘jumping monkey mind,’ as the Buddhists put it. So, then again, your state of mind is at the core of how you show up. To help you get started, I like to share three key practices that will immediately increase your charisma, taken from my own experience coaching and leading trainings:

  1. Practice listening non-biographically: at the beginning of any training I run, I invite the participants to pay attention to their thoughts as they are invited to do a group share. More often than not, we judge our answers and get lost in thoughts of how well we are going to respond to the question at hand, rather than being fully present to what others are saying. Basically, we rehearse our responses such that we focus on us, rather than everyone around us. This type of listening is damaging to all key elements of charisma – power, warmth and presence. In your eagerness to have the right answer you show weakness, rather than power. In your inability to connect with those around you, by being focused on your own thoughts instead, you show the opposite of warmth and presence. An easy practice to help you improve your listening skills is to turn the curiosity volume up. When there is a group share, or when you are in a dialogue with anyone, practice this game – ask yourself: can I invite them to share more? In the process of doing so, you will win on multiple fronts. Not only will you be more present, but you will show caring and interest, thus making those around you feel heard and important. Want to influence people? Do exactly that, make them feel heard and important.
  2. Practice embodiment mediation: there is simply no way around this one: if you want to be noticeably connected to others around you, you need to be connected with your own physical experience first. You cannot be present to others if you are living in your head at all times. To practice embodiment meditations you do not need to reserve hours a day. You can bring yourself to the present moment in a fraction of seconds by connecting with your breath, by noticing your inhale and your exhale. You can, as Cabana suggests, notice your toe. By bringing your attention to your toe, you are instantaneously bringing yourself to the present time experience you are having in your body. In my experience, however, most people fail to do these simple practices in time because their wires are stronger than their ability to pause. In other words, people get hijacked by patterns of behavior quicker than they are able to pause and reflect on breath or toes. Therefore, setting aside a few minutes a day to tame the ’jumping monkey’ with some actual embodiment meditation is crucial. Embodiment meditations are about connecting to breath and body parts, while in a seated, meditative position. Download my free 7-minute embodiment mediation here to get started.
  3. Be impeccable with your words: in the case of charisma this is less about integrity (this will be something I will explore in another blog), but more about the negativity factor. I recall, when I had just started practicing architectural engineering many years ago, that I was tasked to work on a building design that had been through several iterations of what is commonly known as ‘value engineering.’ Value engineering is a process of looking for ways to cut down on project costs, by simplifying the project or changing key elements of a design with other, cheaper alternatives. When I was tasked to work on this project I started out feeling unmotivated because of how I was told to do the work. I was told with a tone of disappointment and frustration that the project was, yet again, going through this process, and ‘good luck,’ redoing a bunch of the work! As leaders, a key skill that greatly influences power and warmth, is the ability to turn a rather dull exchange into something that can inspire and motivate. Being mindful about the words we use, in any context, such that we leave the listener (or reader, because this also matters in emails) feeling inspired rather than discouraged is something we can all do, it just takes a little practice. For instance, when you send off an email, scan the email (specially the beginning and end, because these have the biggest impact) for any negative words. Ending an email with a ‘don’t hesitate to contact me,’ might leave the reader actually hesitant to do so. Why is that? Because your mind scans your internal memory or reality for the very things we are telling it to look for, or not look for. If I tell you – do not think of your car right now,’ I can bet with you that you just thought about your car, or will soon think of your car, no matter how hard you try not to (in fact, the harder you try, the more likely it is that you will think of your car!) So, if you want someone to do something a certain way, say the words that will most likely focus their attention in the right place. Instead of ‘do not hesitate to contact me,’ write instead, ‘I look forward to hearing back from you.’ Cabane gives some other examples. She says, ‘when you tell someone, “No problem,” “Don’t worry,” or “Don’t hesitate to call,” for example, there’s a chance their brain will remember “problem,” “worry,” or “hesitate” instead of your desire to support them. To counter this negative effect, use phrases like “We’ll take care of it” or “Please feel free to call anytime.”

Of course, there is a lot more to creating a total charisma personality. However, as with any new tool, start with the most fundamental ones. Create the right foundation and from there, build the additional skills until you can embody charisma as your natural self-expression.