HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsIn search of charisma, the gift

In search of charisma, the gift


A story is told about a certain young lady who, during the run-up to elections in Britain in 1886 after the Second World War, had the opportunity to dine with each of the gentlemen who was vying for the position of prime minister: William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli. She accepted both invitations and when asked for her impressions afterwards said: “After dining with Mr Gladstone, I thought that he was the cleverest person in England.”

She went on to say: “But after I dined with Mr Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest person in Emgland.”

There are no prizes for guessing which man won the election, but in case you still don’t get the point, it was Benjamin Disraeli. And that is the first lesson in charisma.

Charismatic people are generally believed to be beautiful, charming, attractive in both presentation and personality and naturally, outgoing. But the simple truth about charisma is that like many skills, it is a quality which can be learnt. And what is more, you do not have to be physically attractive to be charismatic; it is rather your charisma which makes you appear attractive!

Confused? Read on.

My first encounter with the etymology of the word charisma happened while I was trying to understand the difference between pentecostal and charismatic Christian movements. The English word charisma is derived from the Greek word meaning “favour given” or “gift of grace” and this has two senses; firstly, meaning compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others, or secondly, a divinely conferred power or talent,(en.wikipedia.org).

It is from the second meaning I suppose, that people began to think of charisma as some mysterious quality that you were either fortunate enough to be born with, or unfortunate to be born without!

The myth perpetuated includes the idea that one has to be boisterous, loud and attention-seeking to be considered charismatic.

If however, you think of some of the most charismatic people of our time, you will find this to be untrue. Think about Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan, Graca Machel and Aliko Dangote. Closer to home we have examples such as George Guvamatanga, Mai Chisamba and Oliver Mtukudzi.

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves: Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God.
Your playing small does not serve the world.
There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

You are no doubt familiar with the passage above, which is often wrongly attributed to Nelson Mandela. It is in fact the words of Marrianne Williamson, a writer, activist and spiritual teacher.
With those words she encapsulates the struggle people often have with charisma.

Many cultures teach modesty, restraint and humility as positive and desirable character traits. But many people make the mistake of thinking that these are directly contradictory to other characteristics such as confidence, poise and a high sense of self worth. It is generally when one is confortable in one’s own skin that one can easily make others comfortable in theirs. Without a degree of self assurance it is very difficult to make other people feel important and valued. And that’s the central truth of charismatic people.

Author of The Charisma Myth, Olivia Fox Cabane, says charismatic behaviour can be broken down into three core elements; presence, power and warmth.

Presence, funnily enough refers to being fully present in any interaction. That means your audience has your full attention and interest throughout the exchange. Body language, eye contact and minimal encouragers all contribute to how present we are perceived to be.

“Power and warmth are added in and tightly bound together. Only both can enable our charisma. While warmth is our goodwill towards another, power is our ability to make things happen. Being powerful with no warmth will not translate into having charisma; it may be viewed as just arrogance.

Power and warmth provide the balance to enable our charisma to appear with the right mix of behaviours”, (www.actionable books.com).

Many years ago when I served on the working committee for the Miss Zimbabwe Trust, we often found that one of our biggest challenges was briefing judges in a way that would result in the right sort of contestant being crowned.

In spite of a formally documented process, judges tended to be easily swayed to vote for the woman they found most attractive.

But the mandate of the trust was to crown the girl who would be most likely to win Miss World, which is not necessarily the same thing! Eventually we found that by saying: “The girl who should be Miss Zimbabwe is a girl who, when she walks across a crowded room people are compelled to stop and admire her.” This was something that everybody could relate to, because it was describing charisma.

The magical charm that we associate with charismatic leadership is well within the reach of ordinary people like you and I. Because, although we can not all qualify to be Miss World aspirants, we certainly can work on our presence, power and warmth.

Thembe Khumalo Sachikonye writes in her personal capacity. Readers comments can be sent to localdrummer@newsday.co.zw. Follow Thembe on Twitter www.twitter/localdrummer or visit her facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/local-drummer

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