Newsletter #482 – Can We Learn Charisma?

I’ve long thought of charisma as an inborn characteristic possessed by some expressive, likeable people with naturally attractive personalities. Not so, according to three Swiss researchers writing in the June 2012 Harvard Business Review. “Charisma is not innate,” according to John Antonakis, Marika Fenley and Sue Liechti. We can transform ourselves into charismatic people that others want to follow. Research in the laboratory and in the field indicated that anyone trained in what are called “charismatic leadership tactics” (CLTs) can be more influential, trustworthy, and “leaderlike” in the eyes of others. In one study 65% of people trained in CLTs received above average ratings as leaders, in contrast to 35% of those who had not been trained.

The CLTs seem mostly like familiar techniques that can be used in public speaking and in one-on-one interactions. We might debate whether these are marks of charisma but they do facilitate better communication and are seen in impressive people. Three of the tactics–animated speaking, effective gestures and captivating facial expressions—combine to show passion that can win over listeners. The other skills are:

  • The use of metaphors and analogies like Martin Luther King, Jr. used in his I have a Dream” speech.
  • Stories, well told, that engage listeners and attract observers to the storyteller.
  • Contrasts can be dramatic because they pit one idea against the opposite. Example: “We can change the world instead of doing the same old things.”
  • Rhetorical questions like “Think what would happen if we joined forces and all pulled together.”
  • Three part lists that grab attention especially if they are concise, understandable, and easily remembered. Notice the previous sentence.
  • Expressions of values or moral conviction are powerful especially if others share the speaker’s sentiments.
  • Setting high goals that demonstrate passion and determination to make things happen.
  • Showing confidence in what can be done.

HBR suggests that great orators and politicians use these techniques instinctively but anyone can learn them. Does this really summarize the basics about how a person develops and shows charisma? What is charisma and how does one get it? Please comment.


  1. These suggestions all seem to be geared toward communicating in a group presentation. That’s fine, but charismatic people that I know are confident goal-driven people who then are able to get others to follow. A person may have good group presentation skills, but if they don’t have a confident goal-driven manner in personal relationships, I don’t see them as being charismatic. I am exhibit “A” in that regard. Under the definition of “charisma” in a dictionary, I would be listed as an example…as an antonym.


    1. Duane and Miriam. I love your comments. I think “charisma” is the wrong word to use in a list of effective communication principles. You both bring a more balanced perspective. And Duane this is the first time that I have knowingly heard from an antonym! I love that self-description. Is it on your resume?


  2. Your comments always make me think, Gary. While I may not agree with the researchers concept of “charisma” being teachable, these are good presentation and leadership principles. They certainly are good reminders and principles to consider applying in teaching and presenting.


  3. In fact, if you read the HBR paper and the original work (in Academy of Management Learning and Education) where they did the experiments, the Swiss researchers controlled for presentation and communication skills. They also controlled for constant effect (individual differences, which includes confidence, intelligence, or what have you). What mattered for whether leaders were seen as being prototypical, influential, trustworthy where these charismatic leadership tactics.


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