Charisma and Executive Presence: Five Tips for Accessing Yours

Charisma is learned and here's how you begin learning

As the founder of a firm that develops leaders like Fortune 500 CEOs, managers, entrepreneurs and their teams into strong communicators, you might be surprised to learn that I was a shy, military brat.  At home my father was a disciplinarian. At school in Great Britain, kids who were too talkative got called out. In response I put my head down, made straight A’s and tried to be invisible.

I didn’t speak up until I was about 10.

Somewhere along the way I decided it would cost me too much to stay uncomfortable and invisible and I put myself out there.

Coaching and counseling my clients, I have learned one thing they all have in common: they covet charisma and executive presence. The question they always ask is, “Can you learn presence and charisma?”

I know these things can be learned. To be sure, the learning feels less risky for some, but for me and many of the executives I have worked with, the learning has been something of a re-invention.

Many facets of charisma

The 20th century celebrated business people with turbo-extroversion, but charisma doesn’t fit neatly in to that box.

Researchers at MIT have figured out that connecting with people is what generates charisma. You don’t show up and spew charisma as a solo act. It’s actually a social skill, which like many others is learned.

Here are five tips on how to access charisma that I give my clients:

  1. Be attentive. Attention is the electrical current that connects us. It’s unattractive to be distracted when others are speaking, leading a meeting or just trying to have a conversation. According to best-selling author Daniel Goleman, “mindfulness” is the ability to notice when your mind wanders and redirect your thoughts back into the present moment. It is a learned, leadership habit that takes constant practice.
  2. Humanness before rank. Leaders who prioritize the human connection before wielding power are perceived to be more trustworthy than those who do the same thing in reverse. It doesn’t take long to connect. We all love that moment when a leader looks us in the eye. I don’t mean the quick “ping” of eye contact. I mean the feeling that someone has taken a moment to “see who’s within.”
  3. Draw people out. Researchers at MIT have found that upbeat people who are sincerely interested in what other people have to say have natural charisma—and they are successful in negotiations and presentations. You have a serious handicap in conversation if you are not curious about the other person.
  4. Notice your second language. Did you attend school with a shy kid who was sometimes labeled “stuck up?” That was me. At times I was so uncomfortable that I stood apart and turned away from groups of my peers. I appeared uninterested and unapproachable. Non-verbal signals are a second language. Being aware of your own signals will allow you to channel the energy of connection. Some of the most important non-verbal signals for connection are a warm tone of voice, friendly facial expression, open gestures and standing near and fully facing others. Even a warm handshake can trigger a connection.
  5. Strength from vulnerability. Most of the executives who come to my studio don’t trust themselves to use their own experience and wisdom to connect with people. They are surprised to learn they’ve got everything they need to be an authentic leader. I once coached a successful entrepreneur who lost a leg during his service in the military. He concealed his prosthetic leg under long trousers and other than a slight limp you wouldn’t know he wore one. His instinct was to keep this part of his story to himself and speak only to his business experience. He didn’t want people to think he was telling a “sob story.” It turned out that sharing this part of his story increased the connections he made as a human being not just a successful entrepreneur. The language of personal story is a medium for human connection. The ability to empower others by sharing what your life has taught you is an important part of authentic leadership.

Charisma in a national or global organization

Leaders are quick to tell me that their organization is too big and they can’t possibly connect with everyone. The bar keeps going up for communicators, but the stakes are too high to give up on connection. The right approach is to think of culture as a conversation in which we can draw out employees and release them into a higher quality expression and innovation.

For example, it has been more than five years since the acquisition of Wachovia by Wells Fargo was announced. For five years, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf has been on the road, greeting his new employees and thanking everyone for their good work. He holds town meeting after town meeting—and each one is telecast to all employees at Wells Fargo. He tells personal stories and laughs with the audience.

Each year he writes a thoughtful and personal year-end summary to his leaders. He passes on opportunities to be a celebrity spokesperson for the banking industry and focuses on what’s good for Wells Fargo. In an interview with American Banker on his awards for 2013 Banker of the Year, Stumpf said his number one job was “keeper of the culture,” which is about community. He is warm and welcoming when he meets employees—who glow with pride when they speak about their CEO.

Final thought, never try to fake it. The attempt to manipulate a connection is much more transparent than we’d like to think. The brain knows incongruence in a millisecond. First and foremost, be a student. The real work of life is going within and developing your own self-awareness.

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Lou Solomon

Lou Solomon is the founder of Interact. She is a TEDx speaker and a member of the adjunct faculty at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. Her articles have appeared in Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur.com, CEO.com, and Fast Company.