In his recent work “Charisma, The Microsociology of Power and Influence”, sociologist Randal Collins provides a fascinating analysis of what makes someone truly charismatic.
Setting the bar high, Collins suggests that as opposed to the many celebrity-like figures we might believe to be charismatic there are actually few leaders who accurately fit the bill, most of them farther back in history.
For example, Jesus, Joan of Arc, and Cleopatra are prime examples from pre-modern times, whereas Lawrence of Arabia, Maryln Monroe, and Steve Jobs are our closest modern day stand-outs.
So what makes these particular figures charismatic? According to Collins it is not their physical charm or intellectual ability but their consistent taking of dramatic action and extraordinary use of “emotional energy” as a channel to inspire dramatic action by others.
With that, here are the four integral qualities which all charismatic heavyweights possess.
Frontstage charisma is the ability to perform in front of audiences, command attention, and most importantly, motivate spectators to take action.
Further, charismatic people seek the spotlight for another important reason. Doing so provides the means of soaking up more energy for one’s ever growing ambitions. For example, Collins states:
Charismatic people live on crowds. There is no such thing as a charismatic leader who is not good at inspiring crowds; and…being super energized by them.
To illustrate, Collins references Biblical accounts of Jesus Christ, in which he would dramatically single out specific persons from a crowd to demonstrate a key point for all of the rest. The result of this “zen-like unexpectedness”? Newly devoted followers converted at each and every turn.
Backstage charisma is defined as the ability to gain “enthusiastic compliance in private, face-to-face encounters.”
Similar to when performing on stage, the charismatic individual uses his or her extraordinary energy to move others towards their own elevated purposes.
However, a notable aspect of backstage charisma involves avoiding situations and individuals capable of detracting from a charismatic leader’s insatiable, often revolutionary zeal. Here Collins states:
Charismatic persons are highly energetic. They are dynamos at getting things done, and they get other people energized around them. But they are also good at picking their spots. Charismatic leaders don’t waste their time and energy on encounters that lead nowhere and only cost them emotional energy.
The example Collins provides is Lawrence of Arabia, who as a low level British Intelligence Officer in World War I used tremendous ingenuity and deft maneuvering of backstage networks to become one of the war’s most influential figures.
Steering away from the draining political-social interactions of the British military establishment Lawrence instead gravitated towards stirring desert battlefronts where he could more effectively refill his emotional reservoirs, retain his independence, and control the valuable information and resources that made him so charismatic a player.
Success-magic charisma is the ability to create seemingly impossible runs of personal triumph.
An interesting example from Collins is none other than Joan of Arc, who quickly rose to fame and glory through her courageous challenges to the French military and religious establishment.
Further, truly charismatic figures such as Joan move out of the realm of the everyday and into the supernatural due often to their stunning foresight, creative control of natural forces, or both. Here Collins explains:
Jesus, Muhammad, and Moses are associated with Miracles and direct contact with the divine…Napoleon acquired such a reputation from a long string of battle victories that enemy generals said his presence on the battlefield was worth 40,000 troops…In the business world, Steve Jobs changed from eccentric to unbeatable after his return to Apple in 1997 and a ten year string of soaring product roll-outs.
Finally, reputational charisma differs from the others because it is not a characteristic or ability so much as the result of reaching a noteworthy level fame and glory which then becomes self-reinforcing.
For all vaunted charismatics their reputation essentially precedes them, causing less and less people to question their bold frontstage proclamations, energetic backstage requests, or the mystical quality of their success-magic trajectory.
It today’s business environment it could be tempting to scoff – even cringe – at the thought of using charisma when selling, negotiating, or leading.
However, if we can replace the stereotype of wink and a smile with the more powerful and fundamental ability to “move people emotionally, get them focused, and make things happen”, as Collins suggests, then charisma is a worthy value indeed.
For either way, our stages await.