A while ago we were running a session on leadership at an Ivy League business school. We showed a clip of someone. He looks like a leader, the group purred. We pushed them, but they struggled to go beyond this observation. The person in question was what would commonly be thought of as good looking. But we actually knew him, and he had no interest at all in being a leader. He looked like a leader, but he wasn’t one.
The look of a leader is an interesting idea. ‘Marvelous is the power which can be exercised, almost unconsciously, over a company, or an individual, or even upon a crowd by one person gifted with good temper, good digestion, good intellects and good looks,’ wrote the novelist Anthony Trollope.
How a leader looks is closely tied to how we react to them. But it is not simply a question of being good looking. After all, many of the most influential leaders in history would not have fitted into that particular category. This brings us to that most elusive of leadership qualities: charisma, originally a Greek word meaning gift. In the New Testament charisms were gifts bestowed by Holy Spirit. These charismatic gifts included wisdom, knowledge, faith, the ability to perform miracles or speak in tongues; they also include gifts intended to be used to organize and build the church.
Max Weber, the German sociologist, philosopher and political economist, took up the notion of charisma as a source of authority and legitimacy. He used it to describe a situation where authority is not derived from rules or position, but instead from a ‘devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism, or exemplary character of an individual person, and of the normative patterns or order revealed or ordained by him.’
In Weber’s view, charisma was associated with times of crisis. People in trouble look to charismatic leaders – with their characteristic sense of mission and destiny, their zeal and purpose – to lead them to safety.
The nature and characteristics of charisma were investigated by sociologists and political scientists for many years. Characteristics variously associated with charismatic leaders included an overarching vision and ideology, heroic acts and the ability to inspire, for example. There was a view held by some researchers that charismatic leadership was a relational concept and dependent on the perspective of followers.
Margarita Mayo of IE Business School, who has researched charismatic leadership over the last twenty years, believes that charismatic leaders gain influence by changing the way their followers think about themselves – and this goes for charismatic bosses and their employees as well. ‘Leadership charm enables people to feel better about themselves and their own potential,’ she says.
Mayo’s research suggests that charismatic leaders help their believers do the following things:
The charismatic leader emphasizes the contribution of each individual and how he or she can play an important role in society and serve as a critical resource to the overall project. Followers undergo a personal transformation, beyond their own expectations, which leads to stronger self-esteem and self-worth.
Provide a sense of community
Charismatic leaders keep us from feeling that we are alone, and help us see that we belong to a community that promotes change and transformation. This sense of belonging is a powerful tool that channels individual complaints and personal goals into an organized group that works for common values and the good of the collective. During crises, charismatic leaders provide the necessary social cohesion that lends itself to organized action.
Make sense of reality
The charismatic leader can explain complex situations in simple and popular language, avoiding technical and bureaucratic labels. This unassuming rhetoric brings the leader psychologically close to his or her followers and serves as a personal reference. However, truly charismatic leaders still maintain a certain distance from their followers in order to be idealized as a symbolic allusion.
Visualize a positive future
During times of change, things get worse before they get better. Thus, charismatic leaders know how to manage expectations and transform present challenges into future opportunities that will not only benefit the group but individuals. They draw a road map with a light at the end of the tunnel.
So, in leadership looks aren’t everything, but charisma – to some extent – is a vital ingredient if people are to follow you.
Margarita Mayo is doing some interesting work through in-depth interviews with a range of leaders. See more at www.margaritamayo.com.