On a recent work trip to Queensland, I picked up a book to read on the plane – The Charisma Myth. As I was reading, my colleague Terry asked what the book was about. We began to talk about the concepts, their relevance and application in leadership.

Turns out this book was quite a useful one to pick up as, not only did I apply what I learned myself, but it weaved in very nicely to what we were delivering in the workshop.

Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, regularly coaches and speaks about leadership at Fortune 500 companies. She has been a columnist for Forbes and The Huffington Post, and also taught a course at Berkeley’s Business School which was so popular that university staff had to be on guard to keep unregistered students from attending.

Interestingly the  research she draws upon suggests that:


  • Charismatic people receive higher performance ratings and are seen as more effective by superiors and direct reports
  • Direct reports of charismatic leaders work harder, see work as more meaningful, and trust leaders more


So, what is charisma  ?

It’s an  ability according to the book and  comes down to three simple qualities: Presence, Power, and Warmth.

Presence: Have you ever felt your mind wandering half way through a conversation? You would struggle to find someone who hasn’t. Being truly present can be harder than you think. Research has found that nearly half the average person’s time is spent mind wandering. The permeation of technology into our lives means that a lot of what we do is automated, therefore it is becoming far easier to only half attend to our surroundings. As I’m writing this, I am also keeping an eye on my inbox and I am listening to music. I am focusing on three things at once! In the workplace, we know that digital disruption will make the future of work a very different place. Technological advancements are making it easier to connect to colleagues from the other side of the world and automate many tasks we now take for granted. It is predicted that almost 40% of jobs in Australia have a probability of being substituted with computing over the next 10-15 years (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017).

A growing body of research highlights the increasing importance of ‘soft skills’ or non-technical skills to the evolving world of work, with a main one being how we communicate with others (Deloitte Access Economics, 2017). If you are not fully present in an interaction, it is likely that your eyes will glaze over and your facial reactions will be a split second delayed. Since we can read facial expressions in as little as 17 milliseconds, the person you are speaking to will likely notice a level of disconnect.

In the workplace, taking the time to be fully attentive to the person you are talking to (for example, a colleague asking for help), can have a significant effect on your impact and influence.

One of the beneficial aspects about The Charisma Myth is the number of practical tips and activities to put these concepts into practice. To increase presence, try the following:

  •       Set the timer for 1 minute, close your eyes and focus on one of the following three things:

o   Sounds: scan your environment for sound, really listen to the sounds around you.

o   Your breath: taking deep breaths, focus on the sensation, breathing in and breathing out.

o   Your toes (this one is my favourite!): focus your attention to your toes. Focusing on something that you don’t normally attend to can bring you back to the room.

Power: Power can sometimes have a negative connotation; however, Cabane proposes that power is simply confidence and the ability to influence for meaningful outcomes.

While this is an interesting concept, power can be an over-played strength and too much can give rise to perceptions of arrogance. Research has shown that new leaders who try to project strength risk instilling counterproductive perceptions in the people they intend on inspiring. Without a foundation of trust, employees may outwardly comply with their leaders’ expectations, but may be less likely to comply privately—to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organisation in the long term (Harvard Business Review, 2013).

Therefore, Cabane suggests that power goes hand in hand with warmth.  

Warmth: Warmth, simply put, is good will towards others. Being seen as warm means being perceived as altruistic, caring, and benevolent (to name but a few positive associations). Of course, the risk here, similar to power, is that it is an over-played strength. Too much warmth, and you can end up not being able to hold others to account and have difficult conversations. There is a fine line between being too pleasing and being seen as interpersonally effective. Therefore, it is important to find balance between warmth and power.

Charisma and Adaptability

Other research into charismatic leadership suggests that charismatic leaders are adept at reading their environment and sensing the needs of others to adapt their style and tailor a message that will have the most impact (Harvard Business Review, 2016).

Research suggests that up to 50% of the difference between what people consider to be average versus highly successful leaders is determined by their ability to adapt. The same is true for influence (related to Cabane’s notion of Power). There is no single best style, it’s about building our toolkit of influencing techniques and drawing on the right one in the right situation (Forbes, 2016).

Executing charisma can be tricky. If there is an imbalance between Presence, Power and Warmth, your best intentions can be mistranslated. When charisma is skilfully projected it can be highly effective for building relationships and influencing your network. By demystifying charisma, building your toolkit, and practicing the skills, anyone can enhance their communication and gain a better connection to their peers, their work, and their purpose.



Deloitte Access Economics, DeakinCo (May, 2017). Soft skills for business success. Retrieved from: https://www2.deloitte.com/au/en/pages/economics/articles/soft-skills-business-success.html




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