by Nikki Owen

Learning charisma from charismatic icons

The history books and newspapers are full of examples of famous people who either possessed, or still do possess high levels of charisma.

Dr Martin Luther King (1929 – 1968)

On 28 August 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King delivered his most famous speech – ‘I Have a Dream’ – to hundreds of thousands of supporters. As a civil rights leader, his passionate campaign for the equal rights of black people led to him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, despite being arrested over twenty times.

King’s exceptional oratory that day contained an unbridled religious fervour in its tone. Using his right hand to orchestrate the pace, he began slowly. His capacity to inspire the crowd to roar like lions at one moment, before silencing them with a simple gesture was an exceptional demonstration of his power over the people.

If you can, take a moment to watch his greatest speech – ‘I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.’ You will observe that this man’s intensity is extremely powerful. His eyes, his voice tone and the words he spoke with complete and utter conviction will remain etched in the history books forever.

Elvis Presley (1935 – 1977)

From Martin Luther King to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll... Elvis Presley remains an international cultural icon. His distinctive voice, combined with the physical, uninhibited way he performed unique treatments of existing songs, simultaneously shocked and excited thousands.

Elvis made television and entertainment history when he performed ‘My way’ at his Aloha from Hawaii concert at the Honolulu International Center Arena on 14 January 1973. Thanks to Globecam Satellite, around 1.5 billion people in 40 countries saw this amazing performance, given by Presley at the pinnacle of his career. With his eyes closed and barely moving, his deep connection with the song generated an aura of extreme intensity that was hypnotic, awe-inspiring and strangely personal.

Steve Binder, American Director of ’68 Comeback Special, talks about Elvis’s charisma: ‘I’m straight as an arrow and I got to tell you, you stop, whether you’re male or female, to look at him. He was that good looking. And if you never knew he was a superstar, it wouldn’t make any difference; if he’d walked in the room, you’d know somebody special was in your presence.’

Baroness Thatcher (born 1925)

The UK’s first female Prime Minister, baker’s daughter Margaret Thatcher reshaped almost every aspect of British politics. Her ‘Iron Lady’ nickname was acquired due to her forthright and assertive manner. Strong willed and armed with a superhuman abundance of energy, she relentlessly pursued national recovery, courting controversy, dismay and delight from every continent.

One of her most impressive interviews, from a dynamic and charismatic perspective, was on BBC Panorama with the late Sir Robin Day. Her direct eye contact and her commanding voice tonality were heightened by her passion and conviction when she responded to Day’s question about whether she believed ‘Thatcherism’ had divided the country. Talking for around three minutes (a long time for television), Margaret Thatcher used this question to deliver a party political broadcast. She appeared to be surrounded by an electro-magnetic force field that even Sir Robin Day could not dilute.

Muhammad Ali (born 1942)

Universally recognised as the world’s all-time greatest heavyweight-boxing champion, Muhammad Ali won an incredible 56 fights, three world championships and an Olympic gold medal. The man who could ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ possessed a legendary charm and quick-witted sense of humour, and he steadfastly held to his principles.

People either loved or loathed him, probably because of his arrogance and mental acrobatics. Using his athleticism and boxing skill, he would taunt his opponents by predicting the round when he would win. Usually, he was right! His physical prowess was matched by his amazingly agile mind and he was revered by Michael Parkinson as his favourite guest on his series of chat shows.

Ali was a giant of a man who used big expansive gestures and talked so fast that his passion for life was clearly evident.

My father always stood up for what he believed in and he recognised that he only had one life to live and if there was something he wasn’t happy about, then he only had himself to blame.

Laila, daughter of Muhammad Ali

He fought like a winner, talked like a winner and accepted complete responsibility for what he achieved in his life. When faced with Parkinson’s disease, Ali’s bravery was awe-inspiring as he lit the Olympic torch with shaking hands at the start of the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. To this day, Muhammad Ali commands attention and respect that transcends athletics, race, religion and politics.

Charisma and malevolent people

Disturbingly, we can experience attractions to malevolent charismatic people in the same way that we become riveted to a scary movie. Charisma can be a ‘gift’ that is bestowed on the unworthy as well as the worthy. It chooses not to distinguish between good or bad. It purely provides its recipients with varying levels of all-encompassing attraction. The more attractive the person is, the more power they possess to influence others. That influence can be used with positive and beneficial intent, or with evil or immoral intent.

Adolf Hitler redefined the meaning of evil forever. Yet he provides an example of an individual with huge amounts of charisma and few can deny the power of his speeches. His raw emotional outbursts, combined with a loud, commanding vocal delivery and punctuated with aggressive postures and gestures, were both terrifying and awe-inspiring to watch.

Key point

Possessing charisma brings great responsibility and power. If you use this power with positive intent for others, you will be acting from an inner platform of compassion and integrity.

Idi Amin is another example of a charismatic presence wielded with brutal intent. Lacking in intelligence and poorly educated, perhaps, he nevertheless possessed an animal magnetism that he used to suppress and terrorise his opponents. On the outside, he could appear almost statesman-like at times, yet his vicious temper caused the murder of over 400,000 tribesmen and women. Watching Amin was like watching a simmering emotional roller coaster: reasonable and charming at one moment and then ignorant and aggressive at whim.