What is charisma?
What makes a leader charismatic?
And what do we even mean by charisma?
If you’ve been following the war in Ukraine, you’ve noticed that Zelensky has proven to be a valuable and influential, charismatic leader, despite not having a background in leadership or government.
Peter Singer gives a robust assessment of Zelensky’s success in this Twitter thread. Whatever happens to this man, he will be remembered as a courageous leader.
What’s odd about Zelensky is that his background is in comedic acting.
(I don’t know, is this presidential material?)
The story of charisma.
It’s important to know that the idea of charisma as a characteristic in authority is relatively new.
The German sociologist Max Weber popularized the idea of “charismatic authority” in his writings during the turn of the 20th century, and influenced the way that we critiqued leaders.
There seems to be some magic quality to certain people that can turn an organization or a country around to his/her way of thinking, just through personality. What makes them so special?
Here is a paper from the Indian Journal of Psychiatry that looks at the psychology of charisma as it plays out on the historical stage. When the author, Abhide looks at the general patterns, he notices that the people we often think of being charismatic throughout history, were actually fairly ordinary.
“Giants like Garibaldi, Lincoln and Lenin, had pronounced ordinariness about them that would not have predicted their future greatness.”
(I love the term “pronounced ordinariness.”)
What does this mean? Perhaps that there is something in the magic of charisma that isn’t actually magical?
He even points to Gandhi’s power as a leader being separate from his ability as a lawyer:
“Mohandas Gandhi was ‘a mediocre, unimpressive, floundering Barrister-at-law’ in sharply contrast with the Mahatma, leader of millions.”
It’s strange to imagine this, but what if the elements that made these leaders special were somehow connected to their very ordinariness?
What if we all have this magic in us?
So, what is this “magic” anyway?
Heck if I know. 😆
However, I’d like to think of it in terms of acting, which regularly requires you to put yourself out there to be judged by others.
When an actor goes to an audition, she is most likely wondering what will set her apart from others.
- What will get the director’s attention?
- How do I distinguish myself from the other actors?
- Am I special enough to be seen?
What’s difficult about these questions is that they imply a hidden “lack” or a sense that something is missing from her performance.
For some famous actors, their success is obvious because they are overwhelmingly beautiful or talented.
There are some, however, who have been incredibly successful despite their seeming ordinariness. Dustin Hoffman, for example, struggled a great deal early in his career in theater before he had his first break in The Graduate. He was so nervous for the screen test for two reasons. First because he knew he was wrong for the role and second, because he had never been in a film before. With the help (and kindness) of the director, Mike Nichols, he was able to trust himself enough to stay in the scene, despite his fear.
Here’s a great interview with Hoffman talking about this:
What’s so interesting to me is how that nervousness and anxiety became an integral part of the character. Nichols changed the writing of the character to fit what Hoffman was doing during the screen test. Even though Hoffman was scared, he was honest and brave enough to just be scared. That level of vulnerability was interesting
For me, this story is about the power of bringing your full self to the moment, rather than trying to be something that you’re not.
How can we use this?
What if you didn’t think of charisma as a special talent or quality that’s unique to a specific type of person? What if you didn’t try to be charismatic?
Imagine if you had the power to be captivating, engaging, and influential, if only you were willing to be seen.
The power of Zelensky has been in his ability to communicate directly to his audience, with passion and courage. He’s not trying to come across a certain way, rather he appeals to us as his authentic self. Even in the face of danger, he’s genuine.
I believe that you have this power in you as well. Maybe not to be leading an army during a war, but certainly to lead.
All we need is to be a little braver with ourselves.
This is a quote from one of my favorite theater blogs. In this blog, a director, Stephen Legawiec, talks about the challenges of auditions, both for actors and directors. In this quote, he’s remarking on how many actors try to access their own experiences and voice during performances, but wind up seeming flat or uninspiring.
Actors sometimes can play themselves, but rarely the interesting part of themselves. Rather they use the conventional, dull part of themselves. The ones who know how to use that special part of themselves skyrocket to the top of our attention.
What is that “special part of themselves” that he’s talking about?
It’s the part we often protect.
I think that it’s the special element in us is the part that we keep hidden from most people. It’s the parts that embarrass us and that we wish weren’t there. When we try to hide or pretend that it’s not there, we come across as stiff, dull and awkward. (I’m looking at you, 99% of all politicians.)
Zelensky learned to use those parts as a comedic actor and comedian, and he’s using them now to lead a country.
You can learn to access that side of yourself as well.
Trust yourself and know that you are valuable, not for what you’ve done or what you know, but for the fact of your existence.
The secret is that the more that you can accept yourself as yourself, the more that your voice will move others. Hoffman was brilliant as Benjamin in part because he’s a brilliant actor, but also in part because he accepted the nervousness as part of his character.
Learn to trust your voice and accept yourself, and yours might be another voice that changes the world.
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