Charisma: What the Heck Is It and How Can I Get Some?

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businessman in suit with crowd of people on backgroundThe notion of charisma makes grown men and women tremble. It brings us face-to-face with the one thing we believe we can’t acquire—our big looming deficit in the social connection game, if you will. It terrifies the self-proclaimed introvert who equates it with extroversion. It points to the one deep inner flaw of the alpha male and alpha female, the trait that all of their social skill and drive cannot will into existence.

Or so we think.

So what exactly is charisma? The roots of the word “charisma” hail back to ancient Greek. The term charisma (pl. charismata, adj. charismatic) has two connotations: 1) a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, 2) a divinely conferred power or talent. (New Oxford American Dictionary, edited by Angus Stevenson and Christine A. Lindberg. Oxford University Press, 2010)

Divinely conferred. Whew – that’s daunting, isn’t it? It reinforces the popular notion that “you either have it or you don’t.” In an illuminating essay in The New York Times titled “A gift from the Musical Gods,” Zachary Woolfe dissects the presence of charisma in opera performers. He too comes down on the side of “if you don’t have it, you’ll never get it.” Woolfe names a legion of great opera singers who are technically skilled, enjoy exceptional careers, but lack the “it” factor. He offers Maria Callas, one of the great iconic opera divas, as an example of a singer who, by most people’s accounts, oozed charisma:

‘Her conception of the role,’ New York Times critic Harold Schonberg wrote about her triumphant return to the Met in 1965 in the role of Tosca, after a seven year absence, ‘was electrical.’ As if to drive home the point, he added that ‘the stage presence shown by Callas in her performance would have raised the hackles on a deaf man.’ (Woolfe, New York Times, Arts and Entertainment Section, August 21, 2011)

Charisma and Primal Energy

The use of the word “electrical” in Harold Schonberg’s review tickles my fancy. That’s where I see a glimmer of hope for all of us whose charisma fuse wasn’t pre-wired by the gods. I also experience charismatic folks as people who are connected to an electric energy. What is this electric energy? Old-school Freudian that she is—my colleague, psychologist Margarita Gurri, Ph.D.—believes that all charismatic energy is ultimately sexual energy. I am not a Freudian, but like Margarita, I believe that charisma is our connection to, and expression of, a primal energy. Animal energy, sexual energy, spiritual energy: These words encompass the mythological qualities of personal charisma. I also view charisma as a force; the terms “life force” or “force of nature” come to mind. That’s as far as I will go in codifying the not codify-able.

Here’s something I find helpful as a coach: If charisma is essentially primal energy, I know that you and I will be able to access it, because we all have this energy. We may not know what it feels like. We may not feel connected to it. We may not have been born with the channel to this energy wide open—we may, in fact, have been socialized to keep the channel tightly shut. But it is already here, and we simply need to find our way to it.

I urge you to refrain from quantifying your charisma. Do not compare your charisma to that of others. It need not look like the charisma of Maria Callas. It may not be the big booming energy that sweeps everyone around you off their feet. It may be the quietly powerful energy that comes from the still center within you. The one benchmark I have for charisma, regardless of how it manifests, is this: A person with charisma generates a visceral and kinetic reaction in us. We have this reaction because of her physical radiance, the power of his ideas, the animated-ness of her personal expression, and the commitment he has to being boldly and fully present with us, in that moment!  Now, that doesn’t sound all that daunting any more, does it?

5 Ways to Enhance Your Charismatic Presence

Think of these 5 tips as little baby steps toward beginning to unlock a charisma that may be dormant inside you and just waiting to bust out:

1. Enjoy being the center of attention.

It’s a simple decision that immediately challenges you to show up more fully. The moment you do, unexpected forces within you will be unleashed!

2. Put fire into the conversation.

When you feel strongly about an idea, an anecdote, or a point-of-view, put fire into how you express it. Raise your voice, emphasize words, let your body punctuate what you say. Emphasis galvanizes energy.

3. Express an impulse.

When you sense a burst of energy, a rush of heat, a dash of excitement as you speak – don’t shut it down. Ride the wave.

4. Choose visceral language.

Language contains energy. Since a charismatic connection is a visceral connection, choose language that is visceral. “Brilliant.” “Dazzling.” “Pungent.” “Sizzling.” “Wrenching.”  “Brimming.” The list is endless. When you speak visceral words, you connect with the visceral part of you.

5. Think 20 percent.

Show us 20 percent more of you. Twenty percent more of everything we just reviewed in tips 1- 4. Don’t try to figure out how to do it, just think “20 percent more” and take a leap of faith. You may not know the “20 percent more of you person,” but chances are, he or she is more charismatic!

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Achim Nowak is the author of the just published "Infectious: How to Connect Deeply and Unleash the Energetic Leader Within" (Allworth Press, 2013) and "Power Speaking: The Art of the Exceptional Public Speaker." An internationally recognized authority on leadership presence, Achim has coached entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 executives around the globe.