Charisma and Confidence
The self-help literature on charisma often identifies a confident demeanour as a key attribute of charismatic people. And it therefore encourages its readers to adopt bodily and interactional habits that are often seen to signal confidence: an upright stance, a firm handshake, meaningful eye contact.
As is so often the case with this literature, this seems simultaneously absolutely right and absolutely wrong. The identification of traits seems accurate and carefully observed, but attempting to recreate them as a means to develop charisma feels like an essentially self-defeating exercise.
This is partly because one of the points about confident people is also that they are unselfconscious. They don’t seem to feel the need to monitor themselves to check how they’re doing. The point about confidence is that you trust yourself to operate competently and effectively in your chosen world, and so you just get on with it. The minute you start thinking, ‘Tall posture – check; firm handshake – check,’ you’re immediately undermining the very quality you’re aspiring to.
These are the same books which lecture you on personal authenticity. It’s as schizophrenic as those glossy magazines that tell you, ‘Be yourself! Here, have some make-up’.
But it’s not just this. I think it is also getting causal direction reversed. It’s not that people come over as charismatic because they are confident; it’s that they feel confident because they are operating charismatically.
Two of the key attributes the sociological literature on charisma identifies for the emergence of charisma are a cause and a crisis. That is, there is some abstract or moral principle that the charismatic leader appeals to as the both the basis for her authority and the benefit promised her followers. This cause is the basis of their shared values. But the dynamism of the group is galvanised by some kind threat to this cause, or some discontent experienced by the group, that gives an urgency to the cause. This crisis thus both drives the group’s expansionist impulse and promotes the heightened emotional connection within the group. The cause and the crisis together are what give the charismatic encounter its aura of meaning and importance.
The role of the charismatic leader is to articulate the cause and crisis, but the effects of this galvanising role are felt within the group. This is one of the reasons why I find the sociological literature on charisma so much more enlightening than the self-help literature, because it turns its attentions beyond the individual and their attributes to understand the interactions between people.
And this of course is exactly what the charismatic leader herself is doing. Her focus is on the significance of her message, its importance to her flock. She may well have spent considerable thought and effort into how to frame that message, both in terms of the rhetoric she uses to communicate it and the staging of that communication, but at the point of delivery, her attention is on the content of her convictions.
And if the cause is something she really believes in, and if there is some crisis that has motivated her to speak out, to take action, she doesn’t have space in her consciousness to fret about what people are thinking about her. All that matters to her is that they care about the thing that matters to her.
So of course she will come over as confident. But the confidence has its source not in her personal characteristics, but in her cause. She doesn’t have to feel self-conscious, because the matter at stake is more important than her self. Indeed, at a personal level, she may have all kinds of doubts and anxieties, but in the context of her cause, the certainty of her commitment will shine through.
The self-help literature is right to identify confidence as a key attribute of charismatic leaders. But confidence is not the route to becoming charismatic, it is the reward for believing in something more important than your own ego.