Is charisma innate or can we acquire it? This question has preoccupied scholars of leadership certainly since Max Weber proposed it was a gift "not accessible to everybody" over a century ago. Research suggests charismatic leadership - the use of ideology and emotion to rouse feeling and motivations - involves explicit behaviours, such as body language techniques, showing moral conviction and using metaphor. Is it possible to teach these so-called charismatic leader tactics (CLTs), and does this lead to higher attributions of charisma? There have been promising studies, but to date there hasn't been a study that investigated mature working adults and used a control group.
Enter a team from the University of Lausanne, headed by John Antonakis. Their first study recruited 34 managers who underwent a 360-degree process, each receiving ratings of charisma and leadership prototypicality (how much they resemble a leader) from themselves and around ten other co-workers. One month later, half the managers experienced a charisma training intervention, which included presentation of the various CLTs and practical sessions. Three months after the intervention, all managers again received 360 ratings using an altered rating scale to avoid undue influence from the last process. Managers who underwent training saw their charisma ratings significantly grow, relative to those who didn't.
There remained a possibility that these effects weren't the result of CLTs but due to raised confidence or self-awareness due to the training. So a second, study looked directly at the effects of CLTs in a controlled laboratory setting. 41 participants from an MBA course made speeches as part of their course requirements. After a bout of charisma training, they were asked to give the speech again, making changes in light of the training but preserving its core content. Films of every speech were given to trained coders who determined how many of the CLTs were present in a given speech, confirming they were more frequent after the training. Speeches with more CLTs - determined by the coder group - received higher ratings from a separate rater group on trust, competence, influence, affect (emotion) and leader prototypicality.
The authors emphasise there are no quick fixes - the training involved a real commitment of time - and that inexperienced overuse of CLTs can lead to self-parody, with pantomime hand gesture and excruciating metaphor. But as the study demonstrates, charisma is at least partly the result of adopting tactics that are transferable and learnable.
Antonakis, J., Fenley, M., & Liechti, S. (2011). Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions The Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10 (3), 374-396 DOI: 10.5465/amle.2010.0012
For those interested, here are the Charismatic Leader Tactics: the verbal techniques
- framing through metaphor
- stories and anecdotes
- demonstrating moral conviction
- sharing the sentiments of the collective
- setting high expectations
- communicating confidence
- using rhetorical devices such as contrasts, lists, and rhetorical questions