The President pulled himself up the long ramp to the platform of his railway car.... Friend or foe, those who saw him at this moment could not help being moved at the sight of this severely crippled man making his way up with such great difficulty—really propelling himself along by his arm and shoulder muscles as his strong hands grasped the rails at the side of the ramp.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's whistle-stop train tours in the presidential campaigns of 1932 and 1936, as described here by his speechwriter Samuel Rosenman, have become the stuff of legend. By any measure, they were highly successful. According to Breckinridge Long, Roosevelt's ambassador to Italy, the crowds who flocked to see him “passed any bounds for enthusiasm—really wild enthusiasm—that I have ever seen in any political gathering.” This gusto spilled over to the ballot box, and in 1936 Roosevelt won the election by 11 million votes, taking every state bar Vermont and Maine. A range of academic studies, most notably an influential analysis by Dean Keith Simonton of the University of California, Davis, published in 1988 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, identify Roosevelt as the most charismatic of all U.S. presidents.
At first, Roosevelt's advisers counseled him against the tours that were to cement his reputation. In 1921 Roosevelt had been diagnosed with polio or “infantile paralysis,” as it was then popularly called. As political campaigns expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the University of Pennsylvania has vividly documented, for much of human history effective and charismatic leaders have been depicted as virile, robust and energetic. Roosevelt's “infantile” state robbed him of all that.
What, then, was the source of his charisma? Numerous scholars suggest that he derived it by artfully turning his disadvantage into an advantage. He shifted the focus from the negative qualities of his condition to the positive attributes of his personal conquest—courage, endurance and effort. Doing so allowed him to connect personally with the suffering of millions of ordinary Americans during the Great Depression. After he died, a reporter asked one of the mourners waiting to see his funeral train at Washington's Union Station, “Why are you here? Did you know Franklin Roosevelt?” The mourner is said to have replied, “No, but he knew me.”
Roosevelt managed to appear to be both “of us” and “for us,” a feat that lies at the heart of charisma in general. Rather than a gift endowed from birth, charisma is the outcome of careful craftsmanship. In this process, the group being led is on equal footing with the leader. The aspiring politician, business executive or activist must integrate the group's history, hopes and values into a coherent story—in Roosevelt's case, it was centered on perseverance—and cast himself or herself as emblematic of that narrative.
A delicate balance of social forces imbues a person with the ability to inspire. When watching the stagecraft of an election, observe the candidates' efforts to lodge their interpretations of group identity in the minds of voters. Politics is just one domain, however. Recent findings suggest we all can learn to cultivate our own charisma. Whether as a politician, a Fortune 500 CEO or an aspiring student body president, we can shine a little brighter by understanding how groups think.
Born or Made?
In Greek, the word “charisma” () has multiple meanings: the power to perform miracles, the ability to make prophecies and the capacity to influence others. The last meaning is most relevant here because leadership is now commonly defined as a social process, as opposed to a trait, that enables a person to motivate others to help achieve group goals.
Leadership and charisma were not always viewed as social phenomena. Since the first writings on the subject around 2,400 years ago, most scholars have considered the qualities of leadership to be possessed at birth by a select few. Socrates declared that “only a tiny number of people” have the breadth of vision and the physical and mental gifts required to preside over their fellow citizens. More recently, this position has been attributed to German sociologist Max Weber, the person generally credited with popularizing the term “charisma.” Early in the 20th century he described charisma as:
A certain quality of an individual personality by which [a leader] is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities. These are such as are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary … as resting on magical powers.
Read more closely, however, and it becomes clear that Weber did not see charisma as merely a rare quality possessed by certain lucky individuals. People tend to focus on the words “superhuman” and “magical” in the above quotation, but the words “treated” and “regarded” are equally important. As Weber continues: “What is alone important is how the individual is regarded by those subjected to charismatic authority, by his ‘followers' or ‘disciples.'” In other words, followers distinguish the leader from others and confer charisma on him or her.
Empirical research supports this insight, in particular work by the late James Meindl of the University at Buffalo S.U.N.Y. and his colleagues. Meindl, along with Sanford Ehrlich, now affiliated with U.C. San Diego, and Janet Dukerich of the University of Texas at Austin, reviewed 30,000 newspaper reports that mentioned business executives' leadership. In 1985 they reported a strong correlation between references to charismatic leadership and evidence that a company's performance had improved. The discovery suggested two possibilities: either a leader's decisions and actions led to organizational improvement, or when people saw a company perform better, they assumed the outcome was because of charismatic leadership.
To tease out the thorny issues of causality, Meindl designed a follow-up experiment. Working with Rajnandini Pillai of California State University San Marcos, he presented business school students with biographical information about the male chief executive of a fast food company along with data about the company's performance during the preceding 10 years. Some study participants were told that the company had gone from a profit into loss (a “crisis decline”), whereas others were told that the business had remained in a loss, maintained a profit or gone from a loss to profit (a “crisis turnaround”). The participants then rated the leader's charisma on a series of scales [see box below].
Although the executive's character was described the same way in each condition, he was seen as much more charismatic when the company's fortunes had improved. As a result, Meindl concluded that charisma is not a characteristic of a leader but an attribution made by followers who are seduced by what he termed “the romance of leadership.” In short, charisma may be more a trap than a trait.
There is more to seeing charisma, however, than observing success. Evidence from other research suggests that we are unlikely to attribute charisma to the manager of a competing team that outperforms ours or to the leader of a rival party that defeats our own at the polls. That is, a leader succeeds for us. This insight is the starting point for what we, in a 2010 book co-authored with Michael J. Platow of the Australian National University, refer to in the title as The New Psychology of Leadership [see also our article by that name in Scientific American Mind, August/September 2007].
Making “Us” Special
The framework for our analysis comes from the work of the late John C. Turner, who was a social psychologist at the Australian National University. Turner's key insight into leadership, elaborated in his 1991 book Social Influence, is that it is a group process in which individuals' sense of a shared social identity enables them to exert influence over one another.
Social identity refers to people's understanding of themselves as belonging to a group. It is the sense of “us-ness” that we recognize when we refer to “us Americans,” “us students,” “us Celtics fans,” and so on. A significant prediction of social identity theory is that when we define ourselves in terms of a group (for example, “us Americans”), we then view that collective as different from, and better than, other groups. If a group matters to us, it hurts to see it confused with others, as you will know if you are a Canadian who has mistakenly been called an American or a Scot who has been taken for an Englishman. Similarly, it pains us to see our group get beaten—particularly by a rival group.
We also tend to recognize other members of our group as more helpful than outsiders in advancing our group's interests. An ongoing research program by psychologist Daan van Knippenberg of Erasmus University Rotterdam and his colleagues Nathalie Lossie and Henk Wilke has shown that regardless of the particular arguments leaders put forward for a new policy—such as whether they favored or opposed university entrance exams—students are influenced more by those leaders whose views appeared representative of the student body than by those whose opinions were thought to be unrepresentative. In other words, to trust leaders to take us in the right direction, we need first to believe that they are “one of us.
The same principles underlie perceptions of charisma. For example, in a recent experiment we conducted with Kim Peters and Niklas Steffens of the University of Exeter in England and presented at the 2011 General Meeting of the European Association of Social Psychology, we found that students perceived President Barack Obama's address to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit to be charismatic when they saw him as a member of their group and advancing its goals. More specifically, respondents who defined themselves as “environmentalists” judged Obama's speech as more charismatic when they were told that the U.S. was going to meet targets for carbon dioxide emissions reduction than when they were led to believe the U.S. would miss those goals. This information, however, had no impact on the students who did not define themselves as environmentalists, who generally saw the speech as far less charismatic. Obama's charisma was contingent on his audience members perceiving that he supported their goals.
A number of other studies that we and our colleagues have conducted confirm this result. These experiments all ask university students to rate the charisma of “Chris,” a student leader. They do so by evaluating statements that ask them to assess to what degree Chris, as a leader, inspires loyalty, has a vision that spurs people, increases group optimism for the future, and the like.
The participants are told that Chris has various attributes—intellectual, serious or friendly, easygoing, and so forth—that are either typical, or not, of the student body as a whole. He also either succeeds or fails to advance the position of the student union. As Pillai and Meindl had shown in their studies on people's views of CEOs, the results of these experiments again indicate that success contributes to charisma. Yet they also underscore the importance of prototypicality. When the union prospers but Chris is thought to be unrepresentative of the student body, respondents rated him as no more charismatic than when the union declined but he was seen as more typical.
If the leader's views do not align with the group, those in charge are not necessarily doomed, however. A study by Platow and his colleagues in 2006 showed that leaders can regain charisma by using language that establishes a sense of shared identity—referring to “us” and “we” rather than “me” and “I.” Chris was seen as more charismatic when he was thought to be similar to other students, but if he was nonprototypical his charisma increased when his message used inclusive language that emphasized shared social identity [see box on page 46].
Tell Us Our Story
The larger point here is that prototypicality—and thus charisma—is not something that we either possess or lack. Rather it is something we can actively construct. For many years we have been examining how effective leaders craft narratives of themselves, their proposals and the groups to which they appeal. In the 2001 book Self and Nation, by one of us (Reicher) and Nick Hopkins of the University of Dundee in Scotland, we used a phrase to summarize this notion: leaders, and charismatic leaders in particular, need to be skilled “entrepreneurs of identity.” Ultimately the charismatic leader is one who is seen as clarifying what “we” believe rather than telling people what they believe. Further, the art of charisma involves concealing the craft involved. To declare bluntly “this is who we are” invites the response “oh no we are not!” Successful narratives of identity unfold as a revelation rather than an edict.
Different prescriptions for the group, however, demand different forms of embodiment. Consider another charismatic president of modern times, John F. Kennedy (who came in fourth in Simonton's ranking). Kennedy, like Roosevelt, suffered from a debilitating condition. In his youth he was diagnosed with Addison's disease, which contributed to the deterioration of his back and put him in almost constant pain. Injuries he suffered while serving as a torpedo-boat commander in World War II exacerbated his condition. Whereas Roosevelt displayed his disability to embed a narrative of “overcoming,”' no such option was open to Kennedy. He envisioned America as a young, virile and energetic nation casting off the conservatism and dourness of the past—a dourness personified, he suggested, by his rival, Richard M. Nixon. Only a few days before his famous inaugural address, his face puffed up because of the cortisone that he was taking to combat his Addison's, he exclaimed to his secretary that “if I don't lose five pounds this week we might have to call off the inauguration.” Yet on that cold January day in Washington, Kennedy looked lean and radiant, one of the few to remain hatless, displaying his luxuriant head of hair. Here was a man who could embody what his words proclaimed: a new generation [see box on preceding page].
Roosevelt and Kennedy understood the need for fusing appearances with identity narratives, but others were not quite so insightful. David Gergen, an adviser to four presidents, relates how Nixon once paid a state visit to Charles de Gaulle at the Elyse Palace. Nixon was so impressed by the presidential guards' regal uniforms, with their braids and epaulettes, that he tasked his staff with procuring similar uniforms for the White House security staff. When the guards first wore the outfits, however, the reporters who saw them laughed so uproariously that the uniforms were immediately donated to a college marching band. Nixon had failed to appreciate that French and American traditions are very different: what signals prestige in one context provokes ridicule in another.
How to Gain Charisma
A person who aspires to lead—whether in a political or corporate context or even on a sports team—can follow guidelines to bolster their charisma. We suggest that the answer lies in what we term “the three Rs” of effective leadership: reflecting, representing and realizing. We sketch out these principles here; however, a priority for future research is to figure out exactly how to implement them in everyday practice.
“Reflecting” refers to the need to learn about the culture and history of a group. You might study the writings through which identity has been expressed in the past—for example, the Declaration of Independence, the poems everyone reads at school or scriptural texts that underpin shared values. Many leaders famed for their charisma had a keen interest in poetry and the craft of language—this is no coincidence. Similarly, numerous great leaders also spent a long time listening before they emerged to speak for the collective. In our own work, we have found that those who believe from the outset that they have “the right stuff” of leadership and have nothing to learn from others are rarely chosen as good leaders. Equally, we have documented the common tragedy of leadership: even if they listen at first, successful leaders easily succumb to the view that their achievements are entirely their own, and over time they become less willing to listen to others. This spells downfall, and ultimately they are rejected for no longer speaking for us.
“Representing” refers to the need to be seen as both a member and proponent of the group. A leader not only weaves a narrative around her identity, her proposals and the group she is addressing, she must also make all these stories coherent and consistent. Appearance, tone of voice and word selection all play a role. The lack of formal elegance in Ronald Reagan's rhetoric, and even the misspeaking of George W. Bush, so beloved of satirists, served to sustain rather than sabotage these presidents, positioning their critics as out-of-touch elitists. When Reagan was asked what voters saw in him, he responded astutely, “I think, maybe, they see themselves and that I'm one of them.” Finally, as with good writing and acting and so much else, representing is about leading the audience to draw the conclusions one desires rather than having to spell out those ideas for them. The art of charisma, then, is to appear artless.
Finally, “realizing” is about turning the things we value in principle into realities. A leader's success is measured by how well that person pursues the top priorities of the group, for example, economic growth, equality or international prestige. A leader who shines with the sparkle of charisma will also help shape those criteria and mobilize people in their favor. A winsome, successful president must negotiate the press, work the political system and pass legislation. In short, charismatic leaders are those who succeed in making us matter.
To an extent, charismatic leaders are also lucky leaders. On being asked what he feared most, British prime minister Harold Macmillan famously remarked: “Events, dear boy, events.” A skilled entrepreneur of identity, however, can still make the best of long odds. Sheer bad luck led Roosevelt to lose the use of his legs. Years of sweat and toil allowed him to walk despite his affliction. Years of toil and craft allowed him to turn what many viewed as a liability into his greatest electoral asset.