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Charisma: Bestowed Gift or Purchasable Parody?

Posted At: February 27, 2012 2:00 PM
by Katie Bishop

Charisma, a word that is difficult to define, is often seen as a “cult of personality.” Charisma grasps the idea that it’s not what message you are sending, but how you say or deliver the message. Some see this ability as a gift that people are born with, while others believe it is something that can be taught and learned.

Chuck Williams, the metro editor at the Ledger Enquirer in Columbus, Ga., defined charisma as, “The ability to sway opinion by virtue of his or her personality and conviction.” Williams also said he believes having this charismatic ability is extremely important for politicians.

Charisma seems to be essential to the success of any political leader, and it seems that some of the most notorious and influential presidents in U.S. history have been acknowledged for their charismatic personality, e.g., Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama.

Richard Fording, director and chair of The University of Alabama’s Department of Political Science, believes charisma can be a serious driving force for voters.

“It can actually make a leader more powerful by increasing their support among the mass public. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were able to be powerful and effective presidents in part due to their charisma,” Fording said. “This was despite a minority of the public agreeing with Reagan’s policies and a major sex scandal with Clinton during his second term.”

According to a 2011 study, “Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions,” charismatic leaders are seen as strong and confident, traits often deemed stereotypically charismatic. Followers will trust and respect leaders based on these attributions.

If charisma is something that can be taught and learned, can it have negative effects in politics? Can a charismatic leader’s ability to inspire people create false expectations and unfulfilled promises?

Teresa Tomlinson, mayor of Columbus, Ga., does not fully believe charisma itself can have such an influence.

“Charisma can be used in a PR strategy to sell cereal or cars, but it is hard to use charisma alone to sell complex or controversial political solutions,” Mayor Tomlinson stated. “Charisma is very short-term in my mind and I would advise that no one rely on it for anything that truly matters, like directing the course of a community, the course of history or the course of people’s lives.”

Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions found that charismatic leaders use verbal tactics that can be used as persuasive devices. The study noted that leaders will use metaphors that “affect information processing and framing by simplifying the message, stirring emotions, invoking symbolic meaning and aiding recall” (Charteris-Black, 2005; Emrich, Brower, Feldman & Garland, 2001; Mio, 1997: Mio, Riggio, Levin & Reese, 2005 as quoted in Antonakis, Fenley & Liechti, 2011). It also states that they will often use stories or anecdotes that allow easy understanding and remembrance, contrasts that help focus the message, lists that assert completeness, and rhetorical questions.

All of these devices are used to persuade and change people’s opinions, which some believe leads to unreasonable and unfulfilled promises from political leaders. What truly makes this concerning is the idea that these tactics can be manipulated and taught.

The results of the study suggest that charisma can be taught and that it can have a direct effect on leader outcomes. If the study’s results are accurate, it draws a huge concern for political voters. Why do you choose certain candidates? Is it their charismatic ability or their principles and morals you are attracted to?

If charisma alone can translate into legislative action, it has the possibility of having detrimental effects. Williams noted the ability charismatic politicians possess in swaying opinion from their legislative platforms.

“It is often done well in Congress, whether from other members of Congress or from a president making a case for legislation,” said Williams. “It happened more often before our country became so polarized, but it still happens.”

Mayor Tomlinson does not believe charisma is necessarily something that has to be looked upon as negative. She stated that charisma is necessary for politicians to be successful.

“’Charisma’ in this political context is the ability to build relationships and communicate a vision. That is what one needs to translate an idea into legislative action,” said Mayor Tomlinson. “People will not let you affect their livelihood, lives or communities, unless you are trustworthy and substantive, no matter how outwardly popular or charismatic you may be.”

Fording agrees that a charismatic ability can affect legislation.

“Most importantly, a charismatic governor or president will usually benefit from high approval ratings from voters, which will often cause legislators to be more accommodating of the governor’s/president’s legislative agenda. Second, personal charisma could help in private negotiations with legislators,” Fording said.

Ian Kershaw, biographer of Adolf Hitler, stated in ‘Hitler’ that “the mass appeal of the charismatic leader has only an indifferent relation to that leader’s actual personality and character attributes. Perceptions are more important than reality” (Kershaw 1991).

Whether charisma is or is not something that can be taught or learned, its effect in politics is subjective. One must look beyond the person’s charismatic characteristics, because if charisma is something that can be learned, it is no longer something people are born with. It is something that is purchasable, and becomes a parody of itself.


Antonakis, J., Fenley, M., & Liechti, S. (2011). “Can Charisma Be Taught? Tests of Two Interventions.” The Academy of Management Learning and Education, 10 (3), 374-396

Kershaw, I. Hitler. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999. Print.

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