We often hear about leaders that they are charismatic or lack charisma. However both research and experience doesn’t point to charisma being a required attribute of effective leadership.
In this episode I explore what we really mean by charisma and how we can demonstrate effective and authentic leadership without feeling we need to be something we may not be.
You can find Jean here:
Instagram: - @jean.bafour
Podcast episodes which relate to this episode:
Episode 5 - Finding your Authentic Voice with Serena Evans
Episode 8 - Political Savvy
Episode 13 - Managing Up
Episode 14 - Strategic Thinking with Stacy McCarthy
Jim Collins - Level 5 Leadership
Too Much Charisma Can Make Leaders Look Less Effective
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Hi, everyone. And welcome to making sense of work. I'm excited to say I'm recording this episode from Dubai, where I've been on holiday and also working. Recently, I've been having a lot of conversations with people about different aspects of leadership and in particular, the idea that effective leaders are charismatic. And it got me thinking. I'm not really sure. It's true that you have to be charismatic to be a leader. In my heart. I really don't believe so, but I wondered what the idea of charisma was and, and why it seems to instill in people so much important. Why is it so valued? And do we really need to be charismatic? I guess you like me can name some charismatic leaders, you know, who you've enjoyed being led by. But we also know some who are charismatic and don't always deliver on their promise. And we may feel that we've been a bit let down by them at times, because being charismatic doesn't necessarily mean that a leader is effective and I've found myself getting quite het up about this. It's a form of stereotype actually about leadership, which I don't believe. Fits in most circumstances and certainly makes it harder for people who don't think that they can embody charisma to see how they can lead. And so I thought it would be good for us to explore a little bit. What is charisma? Why does it seem to matter so much? And what else can we do if we don't feel that leading in a charismatic way is for us. As I was preparing for this, I was thinking about Nelson Mandela. Someone I follow on Instagram has recently been to Robbin island and shared pictures of his prison For over 20 years, he was a leader from a small prison cell. His leadership was of course, very strong on purpose and will, but I'm not sure that we would call him during this time as charismatic. How could we, we didn't see him. But we knew he was leading all around the world. We knew he was leading in his famous autobiography, long walk to freedom. He describes how different he was as a boy to his closest childhood friend, a boy named justice. He describes this, he says justice. And I became friends though. We were opposites in many ways. He was extroverted. I was introverted. He was Lightheart. I was serious. So here we see that one of the most revered leaders of a, of a modern age is describing himself in a way, which we actually wouldn't associate with charisma. So I went back and had a look to see what is it that we actually mean by charisma? I mean, when I think about it, I think about somebody who's very extroverted talkative. I have an image of somebody leading from the front. When I looked at the theor, the first word I saw was attractive, which was slightly surprising, but then it had words like appealing, engaging larger than life and magnetic. But I've got a problem with this because when I think about some of the most effective leaders I've coached, or I know personally, I wouldn't describe them as charismatic. They're often quiet or unassuming. They maybe, and usually are very visionary. They're assured solid, capable, but just not charismatic as we understand it. There's also research pointing to being charismatic, not necessarily directly relating to meaning effective. There was a study reported in the Harvard business review that noted that charismatic leaders score highly on strategy. And we hope that all leaders do well on strategy, but they are perhaps lower on things like operational activity. And that this meant that they were effective up to a point, but weren't necessarily supporting the delivery of what needed to happen in the organization. Another thing about charisma is that when I spoke to a few people about it, they said, Hmm, it can feel a bit manipulative at times. It feels like somebody is charming me and that if they charm me, I'll do things. For them. So if all that is true and we are still saying, we like to have charismatic leaders, it would be good to decode. What is it that we really mean? How can we lead in a way which is influential, impactful, empowering, but doesn't have to be charismatic. Now before I go on, I want to say as a side note that when I talk about this, I'm actually talking about leadership and not necessarily someone who is a leader. So if you are in a role where you have to influence others and leader project, these same principles apply to you because in these circumstances you are leading, of course, some of you will be informal leadership roles and of course applies to you as well. So, let me start with a couple of examples of what I've seen in leadership. I am thinking of two different leaders who I really deeply respect who have led high performing teams with high employee engagement, which I think is really important and in high pressure situations. They wouldn't describe themselves as charismatic and they are demonstrating effectiveness through business performance and employee engagement. And when I look at them, I see, first of all, very high standard set and a clear sense of direction and purpose. And I see them leading through people. They invest their time heavily being with their direct reports and people in the wider organization. One leader I know meets, uh, with over a hundred people over a three month period to ensure that their presence is felt they took. Time to listen. And to coach, they created a picture of the ideal future. And then they worked with people to work out how to get there. So it was both led by vision and strategy, but it was also inclusive in how that vision and strategy was delivered. So they were doing the strategy and the operational performance. There's a few other important things here. They're mostly not led by ego. I mean, we're all a bit challenged by our egos, but they weren't frightened to say, okay, I got that wrong. We need to change direction. Or, uh, you know, I didn't, I'm sorry, I didn't listen to you. I should be listening to you more. And they also challenged upward when appropriate. They didn't feel that they had to say yes, they were prepared to say, actually that's not the best thing to happen. A couple of other things. They also worked hard, but not so hard that they gave their lives away. They went, or as, as I know, go home to their family and they encouraged others to do the same. They lived that value of our personal lives being important and all of that behavior. Instills trust and respect in the people they're leading. Then of course, that in turn means that people follow because they feel safe and well led. I went back to the Harvard business review study to see what they were saying about charisma and how it related to what I'm talking about here. So they described charismatic leaders as having the ability to inspire others. Towards high levels of performance and to instill deep levels of commitment, trust, and satisfaction. I'm not sure that's any different to what I'm describing in these leaders who wouldn't describe them as charismatic. So I think it's back to this idea of a stereotypical concept. So one thing about this is that when I think about someone who's charismatic, I think about somebody who commands confidence in us, they, they give a sense that they know what they're doing and they will lead. There's something here about sort of commanding power and authority so that we feel safe. They inspire and motivate us to achieve more, to believe we can be the best. So. If we are a quieter a person by nature, how can we still instill his confidence? How can we do this and be authentic to ourselves. In preparing for this. I went back to Jim Collins' work and his book good to great in which he described what he called level five leadership. These are the leaders who were leading the best organizations as identified by their study and research in the book. And they were certainly not described as charismatic. He describes level five leaders as displaying a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. He saw that they're incredibly ambitious, but their ambition first and foremost is for the cause. For the organization and its purpose and not for themselves. He found that they were often quite self refacing, quiet, reserved, and even shy again, not charismatic. And I think that this implies that they are led with vision. And purpose and a plan to achieve it. So we are back to, uh, strategic and operational. They are often sharing their thinking very widely. And the people I know do this in one to ones regularly with small groups in large town halls. And they also, whilst they have a vision and purpose, they build the strategy with others. So it's very inclusive. It's empowering. People feel like they have a say in what's going on. So these leaders are incredibly human centered. They're spending a lot of time with others. They're adopting a servant leadership approach. I would describe it and they're creating an environment in which people can do their roles most effectively. And through all of this, they are able 90% of the time to remain calm in a crisis, which is also really important in commanding confidence in people. All of this. Isn't about being soft. I think we often, when we talk about human centered leadership, get into an idea that this is where people will be soft and that the leaders will be soft. And I, when I look back at the leaders, I know, think about them actually making really hard decisions often involving. The decision to let people go or to remove a bit of the business. But when they make these decisions, they think about how they will impact people and therefore how they will deliver them. How will they communicate to people? How will they do it? Holding a human centered approach to these hard decisions at the heart of what they're doing. So as you are listening to this, how can you develop yourself as a leader without feeling this need to be charismatic? And I want go back to Mandela here. What Mandela did was he held to the purpose quietly and. Intensely and then encouraging others to do the same. He was, of course living it. He had no choice to live it and he was articulating it. And by doing this, he actually gave courage to others to do the same or even myself. I know when I was living in the UK at the time and in New Zealand, before that being very influenced by him in the decisions I made about where I was buying produce, for example. He commanded confidence. And yet in his words, he was serious and introverted. I have another example. Many years ago, I worked on a patient safety initiative in a large hospital in Scotland. And these initiatives were looking at what could all employees in the organization do to ensure that patients were more safe. The CEO would go on, walks around the hospital, I guess looking back on it. He also was an introvert. He would quietly have conversations with people everywhere. He went and he would ask them, what have you done today to keep our patients safe? He never asked it in an accusatory tone. It was always curious. And he asked it every day everywhere he went, there was no big Harrah. Just a quiet conversation with people just instilling in them that what really mattered in this organization was patient safety. And of course people were in no doubt that that was what was important because he was quietly sewing the seeds, creating that conversation in the organization. So both of these examples, we see that when we feel a leader is embodying, what's required of us. We will do the same. If I see my leader behave in a certain way, check business performance every day, talk about it in meetings, I get the message that this matters and that leader doesn't have to be charismatic singing from the rooftops in order for me to get that impact. And again, if you are not a leader yet you can still think about how can I do that? How can I talk about what matters in meetings at home or with my colleagues? So having heard all of that, how do you develop this? How do you make sure that you are leading in this impactful way? How do you command confidence? How do you demonstrate your strategic thinking and how can you help people to, in your ability to lead? Well, visual, let's start with a visualization exercise. I'd like to invite you to imagine yourself in a meeting that you attend regularly, this could be either online or in person, and it might be a meeting where you are the leader, or you are a participant in the meeting. In this meeting, you need to instill in others, a confidence that you are capable to lead and that you are leading them in a way that they feel safe and assured. Think about how you are being in that meeting. How do you behave? What do you speak about how often do you speak? How are you sitting? How do you communicate with others in the room, perhaps when you are not speaking? And as you are thinking about this, how are you influencing people in the meeting and how are you being authentic? And I encourage you to just note down what came up for you there to think about what is it that I would be doing. If I am being a leader who is commanding authority and doing that in a way that's authentic for me. I saw somebody do this really well recently. He was a new leader and he came to this meeting and he was quiet for quite a bit of the meeting. But when he spoke, he helped make the connections between the conversation and the purpose of the team. He stared the conversation back to what was important gently. He gave the hard message about the numbers. And then listened to what ideas they were to get back on track. He reiterated that not meeting the numbers was not possible. So he had that indomitable will, and then he supported the team to work out how to overcome this challenge. And I could see people in the room. I was in the room when this happened, feel that he was in charge, but also they felt their own presence. And so they were able to contribute and help and the structure and boundaries that he was, he provided, helped them to do that. So how could you think about doing that in the meetings that you are in. Another part of thinking about how you can leave in this impactful way is getting really clear about vision and purpose and strategy and reiterating this all the time. Like my patient safety chief exec, just going back to what matters gently telling people gently encouraging people to stay on track. And you can do that, as I've said in your one to ones in small group meetings, if you are not so strong in big meetings, it's really important that you do it, even though you may not do it in those environments where you feel that you have to be charismatic, you can do it quietly. You can check in with people. You can go on, walk around so you can find out how they're doing. Are they clear on strategy? Another really important part of being an effective leader is of course, to be really self-aware. And this may be a situation where you are not sure how you are coming across. Are you commanding authority? Are people seeing you as the leader or not? So if this is the case, and you're not sure seek some feedback, go and ask if you trust the people, buy them coffee, virtual, who are in person and say, you know, how am I doing in my leadership? What do you value about how I'm leading and what could I be more of? You could also do your own observation, observe yourself in the impact you are having when you are in meetings, when you're on calls, just see, you know, how am I coming across here? How are people reacting to me in this situation? Do they look like they feel that I'm confident that I'm leading them? And what are their expressions saying about how I'm communicating? You can also consider your own body language. Amy Cuddy's research on the importance of body language to ourselves and others plays a really important part here. So argue standing tool when you are in meetings are used. Speaking loudly enough, doesn't have to be loud. Just loudly enough. Are you making enough eye contact, um, when you are face to face or even virtual, are you looking at your phone or are you in the meeting and present? Again, you can ask a team member for feedback on this and be very specific. Say, you know, when I'm in a meeting, what image am I portraying to you about how I'm coming across? To keep on developing in this way. You could ask a couple of your team members to give you some feedback on a regular basis. It may be somebody who's in a meeting with I regularly, but you really trust their opinion. And where, you know, they'll tell you the truth. You can just say to them, can you just keep touching base with me on what's working and what still needs improvements? And if you're still really unsure, begin to be a bit of a, an observer of the leaders you most respect and look at how they're behaving, how they command that confidence in you and how you could also learn to do that. In many ways, this is a small snapshot of how we can develop as leaders. I hope you've seen that. I really don't believe that being charismatic is necessary to being an effective leader. I believe there's lots of different ways and approaches to being an effective leader in different contexts, and that we can do that by being authentic and effective. If you are not sure about some of the skills I've mentioned, actually some previous episodes might help you with this episode five, with Serena Evans, where she talks about how to find your voice, we'll speak to how to connect well with others. Episode eight on political savvy talks about how to navigate the politics in a way again, that doesn't have to be charismatic. That's about human connection. Episode 13 on managing up. Give some tips on how to help others believe that you are commanding authority up the line. And in episode 14, Stacy McCarthy talks about strategy, how to create strategy and how to articulate strategy. So there's some other resources to help you with this. I really encourage you to keep. Thinking about yourself as a leader in all circumstances, regardless of whether you are in a formal leadership or role or not. And to keep developing it, to be curious about how can I have an impact, how can I lead through purpose and how can I do that in a way that's true to myself.