In 1918, Max Weber, the father of sociology, first coined the term charisma (from the Greek charis, or gift) to describe inspirational leaders.
Bill Clinton has it. So do Colin Powell and Oprah. In their heyday Princess Di and Pope John Paul II had it, as did John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill. ‘It’ is charisma: that tough-to-define but we-know-it-when-we-see-it personal magnetism, referred to in business circles as ‘executive presence.’ What exactly is charisma? In 1918, Max Weber, the father of sociology, first coined the term (from the Greek charis, or gift) to describe inspirational leaders. Today we call someone charismatic when they ‘fill’ a room with their presence, attract people to their side like moths to a flame and compel us to embrace their vision – whether it’s corporate, social or political. Harnessed for the greater good by visionaries such as Nelson Mandela, Gandhi or Martin Luther King, charisma is a phenomenal force for social change – but when perverted by narcissistic hucksters like Charles Manson or Jim Jones or shanghaied by psychopathic ideologues like Hitler or Stalin, it’s incredibly destructive. Our world is full of charismatic psychopaths, hawking everything from get-rich-quick schemes to inner peace; from pills promising to keep us thin to miracle creams promising us a full head of hair. We human beings are born gullible and have trouble making the distinction between the real thing and a bill of goods – especially in times of crisis.
Unlike our cousins to the south, who seem happy to elect a stream of cookie-cutter wealthy white guys and action heroes buffed up by Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Canadians mistrust star quality, especially in politicians. We’re still smarting from an embarrassing fling with former Canadian Alliance Party leader, now Conservative MP and federal public safety minister, Stockwell Day, who generated more than a little excitement back in 2000 – prior to putting his foot in his mouth over every social issue and exposing us to that cringe-worthy wetsuit photo op. That’s probably why an (admittedly unscientific) poll of B.C.’s business community consistently yielded the names of only two ‘charismatic’ national leaders: Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney. Whether we loved or loathed their politics and their legacies, it seems we grudgingly agree they had the ‘it’ factor. Our collective desire for substance over style, our mistrust of charismatic politicians and longtime doubts about the antics of their backroom boys was pretty much confirmed by the Gomery Report, so in the run up to January’s federal election it was surprising that the national media constantly whined about the bland crop of leadership hopefuls. In the charisma stakes, only Gilles Duceppe was said to have a little – and then only if you spoke French. Canadians are so schizophrenic about star quality that if public figures demonstrate the tiniest scrap of charisma – especially attractive, competent, high-profile women such as B.C.’s former deputy premier Christy Clark – we tend to denigrate them, using the word ‘charisma’ in the same sentence as ‘ambitious’ or ‘aggressive.’ Such verbal hatchet jobs seem reserved for smart, attractive women on the right, although now and again a powerful, elegant figure such as provincial finance minister Carole Taylor will flash a smile and turn those same hard-nosed pundits to quivering jelly. Interestingly, spunk and competence – combined with a decent capitalist wardrobe – is considered a plus for high-profile women on the left, such as longtime former NDP MLA Joy McPhail. However, as traditional political underdogs, women such as McPhail and MLA Jenny Kwan – two lone NDP guns during the Liberals’ first term in office – are usually more affectionately dubbed ‘spirited,’ ‘scrappy’ or ‘feisty:’ which sounds a lot softer and less threatening. A charismatic leader in her own right, Mary McNeil, president and CEO of the BC Cancer Foundation, who at the start of her career hosted international conferences and summits including the Toronto G7, Halifax G7, the XI International Conference on AIDS and APEC ’97, has had a rare insider’s view of international leaders at work. Among those who impressed her most were Clinton (“Some of our staff went crazy: he has a very powerful presence”), former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (“When she had some down time it was amazing to see her soften and transform herself from ‘iron lady’ into loving wife”) and the late U.S. president Ronald Reagan (“Unlike Clinton, who knows he has charisma, Reagan seemed much more natural”) . How important is physical attraction in defining charisma? Beauty and sex appeal are often, but not always, part of the package. Here in B.C., provincial NDP leader Carole James, an attractive, experienced, decent politician who exudes warmth and strives for civility and consensus, fails to fascinate like the more glamorous (and eminently qualified) Taylor, who also happens to be married to an equally charismatic B.C. powerbroker, former mayor Art Phillips. While humans are instinctively drawn to good-looking people, we can all name spiritual, political and corporate icons whose personality, drive and vision render their appearance immaterial. Richard Branson and Bill Gates couldn’t be more different but both drip charisma in the flesh: one for his physical appeal, dynamism, risk taking and creativity, the other (a prime candidate for a Queer Eye makeover if ever there was one) for applying the same steely commitment as he did in his quest for global techno- domination to fighting crucial social issues of our time such as HIV/AIDS and poverty. Charisma is a topic that generates hot debate. A typical, thoughtful response to our call for names came from Ann Brown, president of LearningAdvance, a Vancouver-based company specializing in organizational change, who nominated Clinton, UN Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa Stephen Lewis, actor Johnny Depp and, at a local level, Merv Stanley, western regional director for the National Quality Institute and Graeme Barrit, president of Coast Hotels. “Maybe we define charisma in relation to our personal values,” Brown suggests, “so what I find charismatic – compelling, alluring, fascinating or charming – may actually say more about me than about the other person.” When it comes to charming, one man who repeatedly made the cut is Ian Hanomansing or ‘Handsomemanthing’ as he is affectionately dubbed by legions of straight and gay fans who tune in at dinnertime to watch him on CBC television’s national newscast, Canada Now. In his anchor role, Trinidad-born Hanomansing, 44, who grew up in Sackville, New Brunswick, presents as a thoughtful, professional journalist rather than a decorative talking head. His boyish good looks, calm, quiet confidence, commanding delivery and rich, strong broadcasting voice – a combination which inevitably renders any on-screen partners rather bland – is at once credible and reassuring. He leans more to the cooly professional Peter Jennings, whom Hanomansing greatly admired, than the arrogant Dan Rather, whose style he found “too fidgety.” [pagebreak] If Hanomansing’s career was in any way boosted by the CBC’s commitment to diversity, his appeal has long transcended his heritage. During 20 years with the corporation he’s been courted several times by U.S. networks, and while he enjoyed the schmoozing process and the free trips to New York (his wife went along for the ride using airline points), he never had serious plans to uproot from Vancouver. Aside from Jennings, whom Hanomansing says exuded charisma on air, and CBC veteran Peter Mansbridge, whom he notes is far more charismatic off air than on, he also lists Christy Clark and Glen Clark, finding our former premier disarmingly open and warm during a casual three-hour conversation in a Toronto hotel bar. “When you mention individual politicians, some people will always wrinkle their nose in disdain,” notes Hanomansing. “They will either disagree because charisma is so subjective or simply because they strongly disagree on partisan grounds.” On the subject of his own appeal: he admits image has played a role in his success but that viewers are sometimes taken aback when they meet him in person because he is only five-foot-eight. “People are always saying ‘I can’t believe how short you are. You look much taller on TV.’”
What is charisma? British psychologist Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, discovered that charismatic people have three key attributes: they feel their own emotions quite strongly, induce emotion in others and are themselves impervious to the influence of charismatic people. Wiseman also believes that 50 per cent of our charisma quotient is wired in at birth while the other 50 per cent is learned
Can we measure it? Yes, says Howard Friedman, a psychology professor at the University of California, who does it by studying nonverbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures and body movements. For example, charismatic people smile naturally, with wrinkling around the eyes, and touch others during conversations. Friedman has developed what he calls the Affective Communication Test, which some large U.S. corporations use to measure the charisma of potential leaders. Does it work? Toyota’s top U.S. salesman scored in the 95th percentile while the sales manager of a leading hair replacement company scored in the 99th. After administering the test to his students Friedman went further, grouping a high-scoring individual with two low scorers. Each group was seated in a room for two minutes; individuals could look at each other but were not allowed to speak. Afterward, they completed a detailed questionnaire describing how they felt. In each case the low scorers had picked up the mood of the charismatic high scorers. In the world of commerce, does charisma really matter? Well, yes and no. “We have a love/hate relationship with charisma, both in politics and business,” says Graham Dickson, director of the School of Leadership Studies at Victoria’s Royal Roads University. “In its worst form it can be very beguiling, causing people to suspend belief and blindly follow a leader – often with disastrous consequences. Great leaders don’t necessarily have to be charismatic. More than anything else we want them to demonstrate intellectual strength, strong values and ethics.” Charisma, while not crucial, is unquestionably a plus, especially for anyone who seeks longevity in sales and marketing. Twenty years ago the hunt was on for executives who ‘fit’ with an existing, traditional corporate culture and looked every bit the part next to their industry peers. Today, as corporate ethics violators are weeded out of boardrooms and executive suites, companies seek substantial leaders who inspire confidence in both internal and external audiences. Top execs are challenged to create new cultures based on new values and ethics and must resonate with customers and John Q Public, who seeks hard evidence that business has a social conscience. In this new world, leaders must be energetic, dynamic and self-confident and offer a convincing vision that moves a team or an organization beyond the status quo. When we asked our unofficial poll group to think of charismatic B.C. business leaders, they had no trouble. Obviously we think we’re a pretty charismatic lot: we wound up with more than 30 names, many of whom showed up time and again, ranging from city stalwarts like Milton Wong, chairman of HSBC Asset Management Canada, and Eva Lee Kwok, chair and CEO of Amara International Investment Corp, to UBC’s Martha Piper, VanCity CEO Dave Mowat and former QLT CEO Paul Hastings. Almost a third of our nominees were women. Time flies when you sit down with Vancouver Opera general director Jim Wright, who oozes personal warmth, has energy and verve to spare, an infectious sense of humour and a tonne of great stories about the opera world he’s (mostly) willing to share. It’s such a heady package that you feel like shelling out for season’s tickets on the spot. In 1999, Wright blew into town to save our opera, then almost $1 million in the hole, beleaguered by infighting and morale problems, with no plans beyond the next nine months – a virtual death knell for any company. A Midwestern charmer with scads of experience in the trenches but no ‘paper’ credentials, a former actor who fell into opera management by accident, Wright set to work rebuilding confidence within his demoralized team, developing a new supportive board, lining up donors and spreading the word throughout the community that in future, opera in Vancouver would be world-class, relevant and accessible. “Achieving a turnaround takes a lot of energy, not flapping your arms around and making a lot of noise, just working hard to communicate your vision, both for the short term and the long term,” says Wright, who recently had his contract extended to 2015. “And at the end of the day you have to deliver the product and, of course, it must be good.” Wright is proud of his achievements, which he shares with the entire organization, especially music director Jonathan Darlington, who reinvigorated the orchestra and chorus. Under Wright’s leadership, Vancouver Opera eliminated its deficit and built a surplus, increased its endowment fund to $4.4 million, increased season’s tickets and donations, and introduced ‘Opera Speaks’ initiatives around productions to entrench opera in the broader community. Leadership in the arts is not for the timid, adds Wright, 56. You need enormous faith in your vision, especially when you are signing contracts three to four years down the road and there’s no guarantee that the money will be there. You must also be calm in a crisis and flexible. “I once lost a Rigoletto from a production right at the last minute,” Wright laughs. “It was toward the sunset of the singer’s career and he simply disappeared. Luckily, because of my connections, I was able to land one of the foremost baritones in the world. He just happened to be on vacation, he could do the role in his sleep so he agreed to come for the same fee. It worked out well. I could never have booked him in advance because we never could have afforded him.” Royal Roads’ Dickson says the new leadership model is “transformative” rather than “charismatic.” Leaders still inspire and involve the troops, but their efforts are based on a set of underlying ethical principles. This style, which produces strong, competent executives with a human touch is especially attractive to the under-40 set, who are signing up for leadership training in record numbers. (More than 600 people are currently enrolled in Royal Roads’ MA in Leadership program.) “Things are definitely changing,” adds Dickson. “Younger people don’t have the same values as your typical 60-year-old CEO. They want a leader who represents their ideals and creates a work-life balance: they’re suspicious of people who give up everything for the corporation.” Rookie NDP MLA Rob Fleming, 34, a former Victoria city councillor, is said to represent this emerging leadership style. After acknowledging he made a dumb mistake as a student (he was thrown out of a UVic student society election after impersonating an electoral officer and demanding that his opponent’s signs be removed), for the next five years he put his youth and enthusiasm to work at city hall, impressing constituents with his prompt and full attention to everything from potholes to affordable housing. [pagebreak] Moving up to the ledge in last year’s election, today he sits between Mike Farnsworth and Corky Evans, soaking up their eclectic styles and trying to find his own place. Told he’s touted as future NDP-lite leadership material, he shrugs it off as not even on his radar. He’s not a big fan of charisma, believing it’s a dangerous media concoction producing leaders with style over substance. As a politician it’s important to be natural, he says, something that’s hard to convey in the age of the one- or two-minute sound bite. “Having said that, there are still things I need to work on. I’d like to be a better speaker to better connect with people, but it’s because I want to be a more effective MLA, more than because I want to impress anyone.” Like any good politician, Fleming sticks closely to party lines when it comes to listing people who impress him – including his new boss James, Ed Broadbent on the national stage, former provincial NDP cabinet minister Andrew Petter, now Dean of Law at UVic, and Manitoba premier Gary Doer. At the end of the day, even if you score high in the charisma stakes, it won’t guarantee you land that top job, says Craig Hemer, partner with executive search firm Ray & Berndtson and a former Vancouver city councillor, who recruits senior executives for clients in forestry, technology, education and government. Asked to name a great B.C. business leader, Hemer cites Finning’s Doug Whitehead as one of the strongest, most successful CEOs in the marketplace. “In recent years we’ve seen charismatic business leaders who were complete disasters because they relied solely on energy and force of personality,” he notes. “Those types interview well and because their social skills are so highly developed, companies don’t check into their competence as much as they should, perhaps because panelists are so overawed. It’s our job to say, ‘Wait a minute, let’s do some due diligence before you offer this person the job.’” He reminds us that during the tech boom the North American business community saw an influx of energetic, passionate 20-somethings who persuaded venture capitalists, institutional and individual investors to back them on the way up, only to crash and burn when the bloom went off the rose. “Turns out they didn’t have the depth, the substance or the business acumen to carry the business forward,” says Hemer. “That’s the real danger of charisma.” On the other side of the coin, he works with executives who look great on paper but who barely crack a smile when interviewed and project as too aggressive or too tough. “You don’t necessarily need charisma to succeed, but you do need what we call ‘likeability,’” he notes. “It’s important that we like and respect the people we work with. We don’t have to be their pal, just genuinely like them as a person because of their values, common sense or wisdom. If you don’t have likeability, and you can’t demonstrate humanity, it doesn’t matter how skilled you are, you won’t get the job.” STAGING A CHARM OFFENSIVE If you’re deficient in the charisma department and worried it’s holding you back at work, there are ways to kick it up a notch. But embark on this strategy at your peril – trying too hard could backfire. Our experts warn that to be effective, charisma must seem natural The mirror never lies Ability and hard work alone won’t get you to the top. Check out your image: How is your personal grooming? Does your appearance project professionalism and inspire confidence? You don’t have to drop a tonne of cash, switch to designer duds or dress like a corporate robot. Whether you toil in a large organization or work for yourself, adapting your unique style to your business environment will get you noticed. Actions speak louder Strong leaders never appear weak or vulnerable or look like grinning idiots. Always keep your hands away from your face when speaking. Try to cultivate a genuine smile, a strong, calm voice, a firm handshake and maintain eye contact while speaking to people. As you walk, stand tall, look up, pick up your feet and move purposefully. Learn how to make meaningful small talk before getting down to business. Experts say it’s okay to touch someone on the upper arm while talking but don’t lean in or invade their personal space. Hit the books Build on your basic education. According to our sources, you don’t need an MBA to be a great leader, but consider taking night school or leadership, communications and management courses. Read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey. Top companies are especially interested in people who demonstrate community involvement and a lifelong commitment to learning. Over time, construct a great resumé and learn how to sell yourself and your achievements effectively and with confidence. Ratchet up your EQ Competence and strength of purpose are key, but you must also be likeable and a strong communicator. Create an inclusive working environment that makes everyone feel important. Acknowledge individual contributions. Listen without interrupting and, without appearing ponderous, pause a moment before you answer a question. Learn how to put others completely at ease in any social setting. Lead by example Ethics are extremely important. Designers of great cultures inspire and exemplify the qualities they seek in their own team members. If you can, project confidence, reassurance and optimism – it’s an attractive combination. Be a coach, not a critic, be decisive and fair and accept responsibility for losses as well as wins. Put your heart in it Whatever you care about – be passionate. Avoid using jargon and clichés and learn how to communicate complex messages simply and clearly. It’s okay to be creative, controversial and take risks. Learn from great speakers in history like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela and use image-based words, inspirational rhetoric and spine-tingling prose to communicate your goals. When they believe in your vision, employees and peers will want to buy in. Keep ’em smiling Most great leaders take their work seriously but not themselves – over time they develop an engaging, self-deprecating sense of humour. A word of caution here: it’s really hard to make this trait look natural and comfortable. If you’re entirely clueless, use humour sparingly in conversation and presentations and always make sure it’s appropriate.