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Can You Teach Someone to be Charismatic?

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martin_luther_kingIf you read a certain subset of the self-help literature, you’ll be assured that charisma is something that can be yours by using certain techniques, and that your life will be transformed as a result. On the other hand, you’ll also find many people telling you that charisma is something in-born – you either have it or you don’t, and if you have to ask, you’re clearly in the latter category.

So, which position is right?

Well, neither, really. They’ve both got some elements of truth to them, which is why both points of view survive so healthily – they each capture something that plausibly describes the world as we experience it. But neither tells the whole story.

The thing about charisma is that it is contextual; different circumstances mitigate towards or against charisma. This is true both in day-to-day life of different social encounters and the broader historical sweep of events. On the small scale, someone who is shy and deferential in one-to-one conversations may become an inspirational performer when put in front of an audience.* In the bigger picture, it was the lack of civil rights for African Americans that brought forth Martin Luther King’s dream. So any one individual may find themselves operating charismatically in some circumstances but not in others, which belies the notion that it is some kind of supernatural gift.

Having said that, some people are just more likely to seek out those kinds of situations. I think this aspect is a dimension of personality. My father was once told back when he was in the RAF, ‘The trouble with you, Garnett, is that you like to kick the machine to see if any bits fall off.’ And he’s still like that, forty years later. People who have the urge to critique the status quo do tend to seek out situations where there are opportunities to galvanise others into service of a cause. But anyone whose core values are threatened can be provoked into charismatic behaviours; this is a distinction between tendencies, not absolute types.

The problem with the self-help approach on the other hand is that mostly what they’re teaching isn’t charisma so much as charm and confidence. Both charm and confidence are often closely correlated with charisma, but they’re not the same thing. You can look people in the eye and have a firm handshake as much as you like, but only if the wider circumstances allow will this transmute into the capacity to elicit passionate responses. The concept of charisma as personal magnetism is limited by its focus on the qualities and behaviours of the individual, whereas it is their relationship with the wider social group that is key to generating that inter-personal energy.

So, the upshot of this is something along the lines of: while it might be possible in theory for anyone to learn how to become charismatic, in practice a lot of people won’t bother. So in that sense, you do either have it or you don’t – but what you have is the desire, rather than the gift per se. But for those who have a reason to desire charisma, then it’s eminently learnable – not least because they are probably already part-way there.

The reason I’m writing about this is because it’s a real issue for conductors. We’re told it’s essential to our success, but we’re also told there’s nothing you can do to get it. How dispiriting is that?? I want to give a more encouraging message: if you have the kind of personality to relish leading a musical ensemble, you have already self-selected to be amongst those who can learn to be charismatic.

*I have a very specific example in mind here, but I don’t want to embarrass him by saying who, as he’s quite self-deprecating when he’s not rising to a public occasion!

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