Good News for Aspiring Leaders: 'It' Factor Can Be Learned

learned leadership Everyone writes about charismatic leaders -- those who have that certain something that makes people want to follow them anywhere, but no one ever defines what that "It" factor is all about.

Business management textbooks and self-help guides cover the role that personal charisma plays in leadership, but according to a newly published study co-authored by Kenneth Levine, a University of Tennessee, Knoxville, communications studies professor, until recently no one was able to describe and measure charisma in a systematic way.

According to Levine, the large amount of academic literature on charismatic leadership never defined what it means to actually communicate charismatically. "There's this illusion that we know what charismatic communication means, but in the research I reviewed, no one had ever really looked at that," he said.

Levine and his co-authors, Robert Muenchen of the UT Statistical Consulting Center and Abby Brooks of Georgia Southern University, surveyed university students and asked them to define charisma and pinpoint the behaviors of people they thought were charismatic.

"Everyone has a leadership capacity in something," Levine said. "But we found that if you want people to perceive you as charismatic, you need to display attributes such as empathy, good listening skills, eye contact, enthusiasm, self-confidence and skillful speaking," he said. Those are the attributes social scientists can measure to more fully understand charismatic communication.

Levine says the most surprising result was that the students felt that charisma was not just something you are born with, but something you can learn. "We asked the question 'What is charisma?' and their answers tended to start with 'the ability to ...' Well, abilities are believed to be acquired attributes rather than inbred traits, so a lot of people believe that charisma can be learned."

Levine believes the research makes a case for incorporating these concepts in order to better measure the level of charisma of individual leaders.

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