The Charisma Factor

In exploring the behavior of the entrepreneurs I’ve studied, one persistent question emerges: Why do people put up with them? Even in the case of Dov Charney, his bad reputation eventually brought him down, but it took decades to do so. How is that possible? In many cases, as much as employees and board members may abhor men like Arnell and Charney, they are mesmerized by them in equal measure. Why? Charisma.

While conducting research for my book, Guiding Growth, I discovered something that intrigued me. I found that when leaders could conceptualize and communicate a strong, inspiring vision, it compelled those listening to them to identify strongly with not only the vision but also the leader who was putting it into words—regardless of whether or not his ideas were original or even his own. It also didn’t matter if the “leader” in this case was actually running the company; the attraction had little to do with organizational rank. This ability to skillfully communicate a vision has been found to be one of the defining characteristics of charisma.

Of course, these compelling visions are sometimes little more than rhetorical showmanship, and they may not actually reflect any real commitment on the speaker’s part to the matter at hand: Chris Christie is a prime example of this. No matter. If the listener is enraptured by the content and enthralled by the presentation, it can be difficult to see through the smoke and mirrors.

Charismatic leaders tend to have an extraordinary facility with language, making effective use of allegory, analogy, metaphor, and symbols to make their point. Nonverbally, there is often particular mindfulness paid to physical appearance, eye contact, voice modulation, and body language: an uncanny ability to read personal and social cues.

Steve Jobs personified the charismatic leader—someone who inspired those around him even though working with him could be unbearable. Jobs was particularly famous for his penetrating, unblinking stare. He would gaze into a person’s eyes, ask them questions, and hold the stare while waiting for an answer. This stare was not an unconscious tendency: Jobs had trained himself to be able to stare without blinking for long periods. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs saw his intensity as an instrument of persuasion: “He taught himself to stare without blinking so he could talk people into things.” An early Apple employee would later say that Jobs “reminded me of Rasputin. He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it.”

The modus operandi of leaders like Jobs runs counter to our current cultural ideal of those who lead with great empathy and humility. But many of the men heading up companies continue to rely on in-your-face intimidation tactics to lead.

Looking beneath the tough exteriors of these larger-than-life leaders, however, can provide a more subtle insight into human motivation and organizational behavior. Psychologist Howard Gardner suggested the term social intelligence to explain how some leaders become so adept at getting others to follow them and, in the process, inspiring a high level of performance from their followers. Gardner defined social intelligence in terms of a leader’s interpersonal skills, such as empathy and the ability to influence others on the basis of that understanding.

Another thing Jobs was famous for was the visionary way he talked about computing and, later, music and phones. He was energetic and could dazzle listeners with his vision of the future, pushing them to think beyond what seemed possible. Investors wanted to give him money, and engineers and designers wanted to work with him, and he became an object of near cultlike admiration.

The reality of working with Steve Jobs was not so rosy: he was infamous for his tantrums, his put-downs, and his unreasonable requests. Jony Ive, Jobs’s longtime lieutenant at Apple, would say, “The normal rules of social engagement do not apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone.”

This highlights a key difference between socially intelligent and politically intelligent leaders. Both are adept at sizing other people up, and both have a keen, discriminating eye for human behavior. But while socially intelligent leaders assess people’s strengths and figure out how to make the most of them, politically intelligent leaders focus on people’s weaknesses and exploit them. Bill Moyers, onetime press secretary of world-class intimidator Lyndon Johnson, commented that Johnson had “an animal sense of weakness in other men.” A political scientist once remarked that Johnson studied, analyzed, cataloged, and remembered the strengths and weaknesses and the likes and dislikes of other politicians the way others collect data on stock picks or batting averages.

Socially intelligent leaders pull the levers of empathy and use “soft power” to build bridges and get things done, while mean men like Jobs bully and intimidate to bend people to their will, exploiting the anxieties and vulnerabilities of underlings to gain an upper hand.

We often use the term charismatic as a compliment, but like so many of the entrepreneurial traits I’ve researched, in the wrong hands, charisma can be a treacherous weapon.