How To Be A Charismatic Leader

How To Be A Charismatic Leader -

We have such a laundry list of things we consider important to effective leadership that I often wonder if a leader could exist who met even half of the requirements. We want leaders who are brilliant, multi-talented, visionary, creative, insightful and the list goes on. The job gets harder still when we start to pull in abstract characteristics like charm or charisma. Imagine trying to practice your compelling. Perhaps they offer courses in being fascinating at Harvard. When we start to describe that quintessential something that great leaders possess I think our imaginations can contribute more than any one leader can produce.

Despite my misgivings about the importance of the charm factor, I can‘t escape the fact that there are a preponderance of leaders who also happen to be charismatic.  Those people who walk into a room and draw others to them. There are men and women who can motivate others to do as they say, even when what they are saying is nonsense. If great leaders are charming and leadership can be taught, it follows that charm and charisma can also be taught. So I went looking for my leadership charm school.

Cover of "Social Intelligence: The New Sc...

Cover via Amazon

As it happens, I didn’t have to look very hard. Almost immediately, I was overwhelmed with articles on emotional intelligence or social intelligence. There has been a lot of research done in this area over the past twenty years with perhaps the most notable work being done by psychologist and author, Daniel Goleman. His book, called simply, Emotional Intelligence, first published in 1995 marked the start of a proliferation of literature in this area.  His most popular work since that time is his 2006 book, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, which really marks the expansion of his theories.

Whether you are looking at emotional or social intelligence, it really comes down to your ability to know and control yourself so that you respond to the people around you appropriately. What’s more, it’s reading them and then knowing how to use those cues to influence or motivate their behaviour. In effect, it comes down to your capacity to step outside yourself, and accurately assess your environment and the people in it.  Not surprisingly, the ability to deep listen was an essential component of emotional intelligence. If you can’t listen, you can’t lead or at least not well. Emotional intelligence is seen as a more predictive trait than IQ in determining effective leadership.

When you look at some of the more consistent measures of social intelligence, then you also see why the behaviours associated with descriptions of charm or charisma are also seen as factors in high emotional intelligence.  The best part is, emotional intelligence can be learned.  The most difficult part is determining that you actually want to learn because you will have to remove old habits and ingrain new ones.  Not an easy task as any one who has tried and failed to diet successfully knows.

At the heart of emotional intelligence is emotional control.  Control over yourself and in many respects, those around you. It is the ability to stay calm in an emergency or peaceful when things or people conspire to frustrate or make you angry. Emotional intelligence enables you to chose the feeling you’re going to feel best about when you reflect back on any given exchange.

Below are some tips for achieving emotional intelligence:

1)      Be self-aware: Being self-aware means that you are always present in the moment.  If you are talking to someone, they are your priority, the centre of your focus. Remember its not just what they are saying, but what their body is reporting to you.

2)      Know Your Options: Be aware of the choices you can make.  Sometimes that may mean choosing not to respond or engage in a behaviour.

3)      Know Your History: History has always been a terrific teacher and in our personal lives that remains the case. Be aware of which actions have worked for you in the past and which have failed. Learn from experience.

4)      Be at Peace: Regardless of the setting, stay calm. The calm gives you the space to make smart decisions.

5)      Win-Win:  One of the things you quickly discover in lobbying is that win-win outcomes will mean that results last longer. Conflict oriented approaches tend to result in more conflict.

6)      Respect and acceptance: If someone disagrees with you look at it as an opportunity to learn more.  This is not easy, nor is it about being Pollyanna.  This is tied to remaining calm and being aware of your options.

7)      Abundance. Benjamin Zander‘s and Rosamund Stone Zander’s book, The Art of Possibility includes this mindset as part of the critical path to achieving your objectives.  It opens you up to sharing and exchanging ideas. Knowledge shared is power squared.

8)      Patience: This is easily the one I have the hardest part with, but by embracing it my stress goes down and my productivity goes up.

9)      Delayed gratification.: This is very much like patience with the exception that you can have something, but choose not to because by waiting it will be better.

10)   Foresight. This is really about using your imagination and knowledge to think about what might happen next and then following a chain of consequences out as far as you can.

11)   Deep listening: This is back to body language, it’s about hearing more than words. Try to remember that 85% of what we understand comes from unspoken cues.

12)   No egos allowed: Although we like to think of ourselves as the centre of our personal universe, if you are the centre then you are not focused on the people around you or the options available to you.

Have you ever met a leader who had it all or came close? How easy do you think it would be to gain more emotional intelligence? What do you like in a leader?

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About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at Learn more about my experience at
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43 Responses to How To Be A Charismatic Leader

  1. leadershp says:

    Excellent blog!! Please check out my page as I am trying to expand my views! Thanks


  2. becc03 says:

    I don’t think I would make a good leader. My emotions are way out of control!
    When I was in a leadership role in the old days, I am happy to say I did possess a lot of the attributes you noted. Shame about the emotions though 🙂


  3. Good, insightful post as always, Debra. I’m always working to improve my emotional and social intelligence and leadership skills. I think we gain charisma (broadly defined) as we become of better service to others. Which service ethic I’m also always working on.

    I just now posted about a valuable new leader on the world stage: Malala Yousafzai, the young education activist who was shot by the Taliban. I’m giving away a free copy of her book “I Am Malala”. I want to spread her inspiring story.


  4. I have to agree with the other commenters who think that charisma is not necessarily congruent with leadership. Our elected officials come to mind. They need to be charismatic to be elected, but that doesn’t make them competent leaders. I think businesses and organizations do need charismatic salespeople or PR people, but they are often not the best people at actually doing the work once they’ve gotten a client by turning on their charm. I think it’s important for parents to teach their children the “niceties” of functioning in society. I’m astonished at how many young adults don’t seem to have learned the power of the “magic words” — please and thank you, how to shake hands and the importance of eye contact.

    I’ve also found #12 to be a problem for me in that I tend to feel “un-entitled”—this was a problem when I was a boss. I was very empathetic to employees as a boss and felt that I wasn’t “entitled” to “command (even in a nice way)”. You won’t be shocked to learn that I was taken advantage of. Fortunately, there was also a “mean” boss and she would sometimes have to remind me that the employees were there to do the job we needed to have done and that I had a right to expect that from them.


    • I’m with you on the charisma front Suzanne, it’s not congruent with leadership, but we often look for leaders based on charisma. So I thought, if you want your staff to feel good when you’re around, or if you want to be a leader who responds appropriately, then what you really need is some emotional intelligence. Charisma is a nice quality that is an added benefit if you already have the requisite leadership skills, charisma without those skills is a great way to do serious damage because you will be followed, even if you are going in the wrong direction.

      I think it’s funny that the “mean” boss in your story is totally reasonable. 🙂 There is line between managing your ego and feeling un-entitled.


  5. Hi, Debra- Funny thing about reading this tonight is that I just had a conversation today with a friend of mine who wants to be more emotionally in control and asked me how I do it, since he sees me as an example. What you state in your article is not only what I look for in leaders, it is definitely what I try to do. I think the biggest thing is self-awareness. We can learn what we choose (even charisma, I believe) with lots of practice. In order to practice, there has to be an awareness of a need, and the willingness to accept change. The conversation with my friend was much longer. It really came down to those points, though. How did I end up as an example? I’m not really sure, other than it is something I have been practicing and i change things in my life to be around others who are similar. And I agree that it is definitely interesting that this is not learned earlier on. Thanks for the topic!


    • Stacy you make a good point about the skills being valuable ones for anyone. Emotional intelligence is something we all should be looking for. Imagine the grief and violence we could avoid with just a little more control.


  6. Arleen says:

    I can’t say I have found a leader that fits all the criteria you posted. Just because someone is charismatic doesn’t make them a good leader. They just know how to work the room and attract people. Leadership is the ability to lead, inspire and influence other and the leaders need to understand the needs of those they are leading. A leader needs to be accountable. Leadership is not only an art by a developed skill.


    • I agree with you Arleen, what I eventually describe is not charisma. I’m amazed that people identify charisma as being central or important. It’s a nice to have providing you have the leadership skills in the first place. I have been hearing about charisma as a leadership skill and I thought, if you want something useful in the people department, try emotional intelligence. Accountability is also critical or you’re just smoke and mirrors.


  7. I just completed, Emotional Intelligence 2.0 so some of this was top of mind. It reminds me to take the online EI assessment. In my own book, I am writing (and interviewing for) the chapter of listening which is highly touted as a top essential business skill.

    You asked: Have you ever met a leader who had it all or came close? <= a handful. I've been in the business world 30 years so I wonder if that is a big number of people?

    How easy do you think it would be to gain more emotional intelligence? According to the book, it is easy but not simple. Not simple because you have to more to it everyday. They sure do share some inspiring stories though!

    What do you like in a leader? For sure listening tops my list. Also congruency, when a person walks their talk.

    As always, insightful Debra. OH – you said in the opening, "Imagine trying to practice your compelling." What does that mean – your compelling?


    • Great comments Patricia…I’ve said before, but I can’t wait to read your book. I think a handful of leaders who had it all is a lot. They are rare creatures.

      I was thinking about leadership skills based on abstracts like being charming or compelling, how do you practice that? 🙂


  8. TheGirl says:

    Good tips for becoming a better leader. Now if only you can show this to every manager in the world…


  9. I’ve worked for a couple of charismatic leaders, but neither is what I’d consider the full package. In fact, I immediately get suspicious of charismatic people because it can seem like they’re trying to make up for other factors they could be missing. I prefer to work with someone who has a quiet, but confident style, as well as the ability to listen.


    • As I have discuss this topic with folks on and off line I have found your suspicions to be pretty common. I think we forget that magnetism works two ways, it attracts and repels. Quiet confidence makes you feel safe. You want to be able to trust a leader to take you in the right direction.


  10. Leora says:

    I’m thinking I read Daniel Goleman’s book once upon a time … or maybe I read about it. Time for a re-read. You inspired great comments on this post, with people arguing about the differences between charisma and competent leadership. Good job on getting people talking.


    • As always the exchange is the part I find most interesting on my blog. I learn from the comments I get back. When someone disagrees with my perspective I really have to reflect on my thinking…that’s all good. 🙂


  11. Lorraine Marie Reguly says:

    I read Joe Lalonde’s leadership blog, and have found that he has a lot of good stuff to say about leadership. (I even guest posted for him once!)

    Leaders have many qualities, but what makes a good leader, to me, is someone who’s willing to get down in the trenches and get his/her hands dirty, so to speak, like the bosses/CEOs do on Undercover Boss. (A great show!) A little humility goes a long way!


  12. Jason Butler says:

    Those are some very good tips. Patience and Be at peace sticks out for me.


  13. I love all of the tips but there is one that sticks out and that’s #12 no egos allowed. I have used this in my own life. I see so many people in life put their egos first and it can make a situation go bad. I have copied these tips down and hung them on my refrigerator.


    • I’m glad you found the tips useful, I think I should post them for myself by my computer as a reminder. Leadership and egos, it’s rare indeed to find a leader who doesn’t have one and yet too much of one can create so many problems, not the least of which is a complete lack of awareness of their own weaknesses.


  14. I love that book. Emotional is so important on any level and it is so un-measurable. You either have it, understand it or you look fake trying to pull it off. The list is spot on but how does one train that into a leader who doesn’t have it? I think it all gets down to being authentic, i.e – being themselves. 🙂


    • I had to laugh Susan, there is something comic about someone trying to show compassion when they could care less. There’s always a tell that ruins the effort. I think these skills can be taught, the problem is that the people who need the lessons the most are also the ones with the least amount of interest in learning.


  15. Maybe it’s my dark side coming out but I see those charismatic types as the puppets of the real leaders. Or maybe I am on a conspiracy bend.

    I think many people (even me) suffer with their lack of emotional intelligence. It is coupled with the thought that this is something not taught in schools. People need to use their own time to work on it. Most won’t.


    • Jon it amazes me that we don’t spend more time developing these skills in school, more amazing still, that we don’t seem to spend much energy on them in business either, though that may be slowly changing.


  16. Reid Parker says:

    Good article! I’m in the lead by example camp too…
    Good leaders, I think, excel at whatever they are doing at the moment….observe and listen to notice what works or doesn’t…step up, share the vision and do whatever is needed to make it happen…be willing to evolve even if it means acknowledging weaknesses…and, most difficult of all, be patient with themselves and others while not being afraid to fail.
    Not so hard after all, eh? 🙂


    • Reid you really put your finger on an important point. We don’t give our leaders a lot of room for error. A leader who can’t admit to weakness is a very fragile one. They don’t leave much room for growth and they certainly don’t let subordinates know that it’s OK to admit when they need help.


  17. There is a difference between charisma and leadership. Being charismatic is akin to a magnet. If you’re charismatic you have the intrinsic power of drawing people into your circle. It’s almost a magical thing. Some of the greatest con men of all time had charisma which enabled them to keep up their game for years.Think Uri Geller, a a magician who convinced many people, even famous academics, that he had psychic powers to perform feats like stopping clocks with his mind. He was eventually exposed as a fraud. Leadership is a learned through experience, skills, emotional intelligence — and possibly charisma — that compel people to follow you willingly and voluntarily.


    • Amen to that! I was definitely poking fun at the idea of charisma being an important part of effective leadership. I have seen first hand the damage charisma can do without the necessary intelligence, emotional or otherwise, but I think people confuse the two things all the time. 🙂


  18. cavegirlmba says:

    What a picture… this one will cling to my memory for some time, I fear.


  19. Simone Hart says:

    I have only met one person in my life that I thought was a great leader. She did listen and always remained calm. Gaining emotional intelligence won’t be easy for some as a lot of people tend to be afraid of talking in public, approaching strangers, going to new places and experiencing new things. You would need to broaden your outlook and be able to embrace change. Very good article!


    • Thanks Simone. I don’t think being a good leader is easy and being a great one is incredibly difficult. You were lucky to come across someone who had the skills. I’ve met a few but they are few and far between. You make an excellent point when you talk about the importance of embracing change. You can’t lead well if you can’t consider new ideas and options or if you have a natural aversion to them.


  20. Sorry Debra, but it’s not possible to learn to be charismatic. What you describe as, I quote you, “people who walk into a room and draw others to them” is all about energy. All human beings have different energies. That’s what we call charisma. How do you learn to change your energy? The energy in question also is the reason true leadership cannot be taught. The only thing a person that lacks the energy that draws people to him/her can do is learn leadership tactics and strategies.

    What you suggest about emotional intelligence will be helpful to people who lack charisma, but they will never become charismatic, just more emotionally intelligent. And that goes a long way.


    • Catarina I was definitely having fun with the concept of charismatic leadership. I don’t think it’s the same as emotional intelligence but I do think it’s a word that often gets used in lieu of what most people are really looking for in leader. Charisma is nice, but it’s not an important competency in leadership. I’ve seem charisma lead an entire organization down the drain because it wasn’t coupled with effective decision making or foresight.


      • winnercat says:

        Charisma often makes or breaks a leader, Debra. Take for instance Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki. Both are educated but Mbeki is one of the most brilliant people I have ever met. He was in many ways the brain behind Mandela. But he hasn’t got the charisma Mandela has so he was never popular with the South African people. And, as you know, Mandela is still hugely popular,not only in South Africa but all over the world. Who cares about Mbeki, who was the brain behind him.

        There are examples of charismatic “leaders” who end up causing disasters. But how many are they? It’s just a small percentage but they frequently create such havoc they make headline news. The majority of charismatic leaders out there who are doing very well. Charisma is the cherry on the ice cream when it comes to leadership. JFK is a good example. He was not only charismatic but also a friend of my late godmother. She told me how his charm and charisma made people go out of their way to please him.


        • Margaret Heffernan (author and CEO) did a great piece in March of this year for CBS called, “Why You Should Avoid Charismatic Leaders.” In it, she discusses companies whose charismatic leaders managed to bring their highly successful companies to their knees because they convinced boards and staff to follow poorly thought out ideas. For more historic political figures we don’t need to look further than Jim Jones or Hitler. Even JFK, for all his popularity had terrible foreign policies.

          I think you made my point with your opening example, the ease with which charisma can make people do things is the very problem it poses. Charisma doesn’t make you smart, it doesn’t make you strong, efficient or effective, it makes you popular. It can be wonderful, but it can also be very dangerous because it circumvents proper consideration of options. I’ll take emotional intelligence in a leader any day over charisma.


  21. Excellent attitude. Too bad some of the books you mentioned are NOT mandatory. Might I add, that leading by example is big for me personally. I always found that to be the case for the folks that worked for me. My sales people were more apt, for example, to make a cold call when they saw me doing it. Because, nobody really likes doing in-person cold calls. The worst case of poor leadership was a speech made by the CEO of a company whose opening line was, “This is NOT a democracy.” You can imagine that not one single word was heard after that bomb! Great article Debra:)


    • So true about the importance of illustrating the behaviour you want to see. I have to tell you, I cringed at the opening line of that CEO. It ‘s a bit like saying, “Please disengage now, your views are valueless here.”


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