Coaching at work: Cultivating the charismatic

Blair has it, Brown doesn’t. Clinton’s is natural, but Hitler’s was manufactured. We’re talking about charisma a quality the public looks for in their political masters and one which businesses increasingly expect to see in their leaders.

Just as leadership skills are increasingly seen as a key asset, so charisma is seen as a vital component in a leader’s make-up.

“Leaders need charisma,” says Adrian Atkinson, chairman of Human Factors International. “It shows people that the leader is in control and is confident. It gets people to perceive their leader in a highly positive way. Charismatic people reach out to others so effectively that their audience or employees feel that they know the leader personally.

“Often they might think that they have known their charismatic leader for a year, even though they have only just met,” adds Atkinson.

He has such a clear definition of charisma, which he sees as close to “having impact”, that he coaches either on a one-to-one or small group basis. He says that his clients grasp the value and purpose of charisma pretty quickly, usually halfway through a six-hour, one-day course. If they need a top-up, they have four sessions of two hours each, spread over six months.

Charisma is a suitable subject for coaching, says Atkinson, because it is deep-rooted in the client’s perception of self. “My job is to change the client’s self-perception,” he says.

According to Atkinson, those lacking charisma are those who don’t have a “reference group.” They don’t know who they see themselves as. This dilemma is particularly true of the recently promoted.

“If someone feels they don’t belong, then they don’t have charisma,” he says. “In my sessions, we look at who do you think you are. If you see yourself as a team leader, then you are not going to have the impact of an executive.”

Such a coaching session is likely to include a discussion of relationships with friends, value systems and culture, and then how the client ‘listens to’ such ties.

It is all well and good saying that leaders have to have charisma, but what sort of charisma should it be?

Make it authentic

Charisma, like leadership, needs to be “authentic”, says senior researcher for the Leadership Trust, Gareth Edwards. It needs to have an honest purpose and should not be about vanity.

“For example, Hitler stage-managed charisma through orchestrated events, such as rallies,” he says. “In his case, the charisma spiralled into narcissism.”

Of course, a dictator would never be held up as a suitable role model for leaders, but other character types are also slipping out of fashion.

“Since the 1990s, the concept of leadership has changed to mean moving quietly,” says Edwards. “It has moved away from gurus such as Jack Welch and Richard Branson.”

Edwards argues that as leadership is being redefined, we need to rethink our ideas about charisma. “There are plenty of ideas now about dispersed leadership, which is about leading quietly.”

The perfect example is of self-managed teams, where there is no fixed leader and where the individual team members take it in turns to assume responsibility for an aspect of a project.

“We are moving away from role models as leaders and looking to ourselves,” Edwards says. He believes that leadership in the 21st century is about flexibility, and he sees that leaders are expected to be adaptable and know when to let others lead and then follow. With this view in mind, Edwards defines charisma as about influencing and engaging.

So if the definitions of leadership are changing and bringing new versions of charisma in their wake, how can a coach decide who has it and who needs it?

For Pip Clarke, development director of leadership consultancy the Centre of High Performance Development, the best approach is to use 360-degree feedback and work shadowing. “This will give you a good sense of the impact the leader has on others,” she says.

Clarke is keen to eliminate woolly definitions that could hinder the design and definitions of the coaching contract.

“Charisma is not a smart objective,” she says. “It can be interpreted in very different ways – organisations need to be clear about why they want someone to be charismatic. What do they want to achieve through that charisma? A coach does not want an open-ended goal.”

Clarke prefers to work to a research-based framework, which the centre has developed. “This refers to empathy, building confidence, influence and presentation,” she says.

“You can coach in empathy, for example, by encouraging a leader to go out and ask people how they are and to understand things from their perspective.”

But again it comes back to what an organisation wants and needs. As Clarke says, some organisations see charismatic leaders as galvanising other people’s thoughts and ideas – an inspirational style that is effective in a crisis but not when staff need to be led more gently.

Another stumbling block in the quest for charisma is in gender differences. History has provided more male role models and perpetuated the strong approach, but women, Clarke says, tend to fall more naturally into empathy.

“Margaret Thatcher managed to combine strength and empathy. She always made sure she engaged with the people around her by knowing how they were and what made them tick.”

There is a concern that women miss out in the quest for charisma, and indeed leadership, because there are fewer high-profile examples for them to emulate.

The best way to involve both genders in coaching for charismatic leadership is to accept that charisma is a combination of qualities, says Robin Linnecar, partner at executive coaching consultancy Praesta. He sees charisma as an “amalgam”.

“And you can coach some qualities of this ‘amalgam’, such as enthusiasm, how to engage people and how to create dynamism. But you can’t coach in other qualities, such as intellect, judgement and charm,” he says.

Introducing charisma

No business coach should be expected to alert an executive to the need for charisma. Rather than relying on tact, a coach may need to refer to a force majeur, such as promotion or speaking at a major conference. These events allow the executive coach to bring the need for charisma into the conversation. They also keep all parties in the coaching contract focused as it can be seen that the coaching is to meet the objectives of the business.

As a way of introducing the subject of charisma, Linnecar says coaches should raise the example of story telling.

This is a technique that is almost a short cut to creating an aura of charisma, as the story-teller will be engaging people .”The essence of a good story is about overcoming obstacles,” he says. “And so a story can be a source of motivation to the listener, as well as lending gravitas to the speaker.”

But there are many notes of caution, not least from chartered psychologist and professor of coaching at Middlesex University, David Lane, who says the notion of coaching for charisma should be approached with care. Any coach should take a situational approach to how and why charisma is needed, he says. “It can be more effective to coach the person for the job and situation. These are given reference points that are likely to lead to clarity on both sides and success.”

Perhaps the safest strategy is to pursue the amalgam approach suggested by Linnecar, and to ensure that a leader has a portfolio of skills to call on. Coaching cannot effect a personality change, but it can give the client the self-confidence to call on whatever approach is needed at that time. Self-belief leads to a sense of authenticity, which will also help deliver appropriate and effective leadership.

“Charisma, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder,” says Lane. “It depends on the time, the place and the context.”

You know you’ve got it when:

  • Other people pick up on the energy you are purveying

  • You can engage an audience -no matter how big or small

  • Other people believe in you and what you are saying

  • You are self-confident

  • You are forthright

When actions speak louder than words

Robin Linnecar believes that charisma is about creating an aura.

For example, one of his clients was promoted. At his first board meeting, he took off his jacket to address the board. This was a natural and authentic approach but got him remembered. He achieved almost instant charisma.

Another newly-appointed client from a major organisation was touring the head office. He was shocked to see one floor of the building was badly organised, with a phalanx of partitioned offices, and asked for a reorganisation of space by the end of the week. It happened, and he acquired an aura of respect, as other people from throughout the building made detours to see work in progress and the end result.

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