by Nikki Owen

Charisma is contextual

The charismatic individual who shines in a career context can be almost invisible in a social or home environment. A performer and a politician may dazzle when they are in the public eye, yet in another setting they merge to become one of the crowd. Glossy magazines take great delight in snapping famous individuals when they are unaware of the press. These published photos show them as ordinary people instead of unique special stars, oozing presence and magnetism.

Individuals with high levels of charisma possess the ability to switch their magnetism off and on. Charismatic Bill Clinton, former US President, can give you all of his attention one moment and yet, when he talks to another individual, you are left feeling he has literally taken something from you: the light you were fleetingly bathed in got switched off.

There is a well-known story about Marilyn Monroe. She was shopping with a girl friend, who was stunned that no one noticed they had a Hollywood star in their midst. Marilyn Monroe then demonstrated she could switch her charisma on and was immediately mobbed by crowds of people wanting her autograph.

Whether the ability to switch charisma on or off is a conscious decision or an instinctual reaction, very few people can sustain a high charismatic presence around the clock. This suggests that charisma is a resource that requires replenishing, which raises the question, ‘is charisma like having charm – an attribute that can be turned on at will?’

Certain of the external behaviours exhibited on occasions by charismatic people can sometimes be interpreted as charm: smiling is charming, using open gestures is welcoming and a varied voice tone and pace can be easy on the ear. Yet charm alone does not create a charismatic presence. The essence and intensity of a person’s character must be powerfully relayed, so that people feel that the charismatic person is being their genuine, authentic self.

Hitler and Amin demonstrate that when an individual’s character is strong yet flawed, they have the potential to inflict untold harm on others. Similarly, if an individual’s character is weak – for example, the person dilutes their true beliefs and feelings because they want to conform to a situation or person – then their charm will appear fake or false.

We notice this particularly in politicians. During the war on Iraq, George Bush Junior tried to emulate the religious voice tone and approach used so successfully by Martin Luther King, yet millions of people perceived him as false and extremely patronising, because they ‘sensed’ he wasn’t talking from his heart.

Charismatic people stand out. They stand out, not simply because of external behaviours, but because they command our attention. They command our attention because we somehow sense their character, authenticity, power and presence.