Charisma – innate or learned?

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I’ve long been fascinated by charismatic people. Probably because I’m totally the inverse, suffering from SAD – Social Anxiety Disorder. Rather than be the center of attention, I tend to be a wall flower.

I’ve met more than a few charismatic people in business, ranging from the wellknown, like Steve Jobs and Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame, to the lesser known, like the late Wayne Oler, President of Addison-Wesley Publishing Company. So it was with great interest that I read The New York Times article today entitled What Makes People Charismatic, and How You Can Be, Too, sub-titled Simple tips to break through your social anxieties and make real, genuine connections with others.

Despite author Bryan Clark’s having talked to a couple of experts I find myself disagreeing with his thesis at charisma is a learned behavior and “you can learn it, too!”

The four aspects of charisma I’ve found are a high degree of self-confidence, extreme focus on the individual, enthusiasm, and strong communication skills.


It’s difficult to say if people who are supremely self-confident are successful because of that self-confidence or self-confident because they  have been highly successful. I would go for the former, as I knew Mitch Kapor well before he formed Lotus Development Corporation and rose to fame in the personal computer industry. He was charismatic long before he became a mega-success. While my sample size is small, I’ve yet to find anyone who I would call charismatic who is not also a success. As a friend who worked at Apple used to say of Steve Jobs and others like him, “Never wrong, seldom in doubt.” And while I’ve never yet met Donald Trump what I’ve read of him is that he can be extremely charismatic in person in small, intimate groups. He certainly doesn’t lack for self-confidence.

Focus and attention

The second characteristic I’ve observed amongst the charismatic is a laser-like focus on the individual, whether listening intently or speaking. People like Steve Jobs and Wayne Oler made me feel like I was the only person in the room, despite the fact that there were several others – and one of higher status – in the room when Jobs visited my department at MIT. Extreme focus means shutting out all external and internal distractions, making it far easier to focus one’s entire attention on the individual they are talking with. (This is the exact opposite of the attitude of many of the rock stars I’ve met who always gave the the impression they were scanning the audience looking for someone more important than I to talk with.) I do believe one could be trained to at least emulate this aspect of charisma, but there is more to it than eye contact – though that’s important – there are doubtless many non-verbal cues entailed. The most simple example is people show engagement and attention by leaning forward. The tend to demonstrate lack of engagement by leaning back. I’d love to see Carmine Gallo, who has studied Steve Jobs’ keynote presentations in depth, to analyze his non-verbal cues given in the many videos of Steve. One does have to be careful not to let extreme self-confidence morph into arrogance, a situation not unknown by people who worked with Steve Jobs. While charismatic people may have an agenda with you, they hide it completely as part of their ability to focus their attention extraordinarily well.


I’ve yet to meet a charismatic person who lacks enthusiasm. In fact people like Steve Jobs take enthusiasm to the next level, appearing messianic about their products or causes. If you have read this far it may occur to you that charismatic people make good sales people. Certainly Steve Jobs was known as a great sales person. And I’ve yet to meet a successful sales person who didn’t evince a high level of enthusiasm for their products. The dictionary definition includes three important elements of enthusiasm: intense and eager enjoyment, interest or approval. Charismatic people tend to be overwhelming positive. That positivity is exhibited in an appearance of kindness and acceptance. And that positive attention can be uplifting to anyone who falls beneath its spell.

High verbal skills

Dr. John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, does a good job of explaining this aspect of charisma:

The most charismatic people in a room, he says, are those who speak metaphorically, providing substance to a conversation through exemplary use of anecdotes and comparisons. They aren’t recounting events but paraphrasing action while using facial gestures, energetic body language and vocal inflections to frame key points. They’re experts at using moral conviction and reflections of group sentiment, as well as employing questions, even rhetorical ones, that keep people engaged. In short, they just tell a good story.

Story telling can be learned, however it is far more difficult to learn speak metaphorically, using analogies, anecdotes, and metaphors. And while many  charismatic leaders have a great sense of humor, I don’t believe it is necessary to be charismatic.

If you believe that charisma can be learned then by all means read the full Times article.  You can even buy a book on the subject, The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane, one of the experts quoted at length in the article. But I don’t think charisma can be learned anymore than a sense of humor can be acquired. But there are certain tricks those who wish to gain our attention employ, such as the way sales people will use your first name in every other sentence. People can emulate certain aspects of charisma but like natural athletes charisma is born, not made, in my experience.



Author: Mentorphile

Mentor, coach, and advisor to entrepreneurs, small businesses, and non-profit organizations. General manager with significant experience in both for-profit and non-profit organizations. Focus on media and information. On founding team of four venture-backed companies. Currently Chairman of Popsleuth, Inc., maker of the Endorfyn app for keeping fans updated on new stuff from their favorite artists.

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