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Leadership

Don’t worry if you lack charisma, inspiring others is the key to success

Published 17 March 2021 in Leadership • 4 min read

Do effective leaders need to be entertaining? Yes, because that is the best way to keep the brain fully engaged and emotions active in both leader and workers. Does a leader also need to be charismatic?

Not necessarily. Satya Nadella transformed a combative and siloed culture at Microsoft by fighting internal politics with teamwork, empathy and a belief in constant learning and growth. Though not particularly charismatic, he convinced colleagues about the potential of cloud computing, pushing beyond Windows to turbocharge growth and transform corporate culture.

Indra Nooyi combined meticulous research with strategic vision to restructure and diversify PepsiCo as CEO and Chairman. Her clearly communicated goal of improved financial performance while positively impacting society and the environment inspired employees in the testing transition from fizzy drinks and junk food to healthier products.

Such examples show that what leaders need above all is to be inspiring.

There is a saying in leadership theory that if you are not inspiring you are not leading – you are probably, at best, managing. Effective leaders need many qualities, among them vision, decisiveness and empathy. Strategic thinking, authenticity and team building skills are also required.

President Joe Biden is not a great orator and not particularly charismatic, and yet he can be inspiring.

Being able to engage with people and stimulate their brains and emotions is also crucial. Only then are colleagues likely to respond positively to a leader’s ideas and implement them with energy and conviction.

While charisma is valuable, it’s not essential. Paramount is being able to motivate with ideas. President Joe Biden is not a great orator and not particularly charismatic, and yet he can be inspiring. His reaction to the storming of Congress in January, his pre-inauguration memorial to the victims of COVID-19 and his inaugural speech drew wide acclaim.

 

So how do I inspire?

Language is crucial. Choose words that are direct and clear. Avoid word salads of abstraction and over-rationality. Be honest, authentic and don’t sugar coat your message, however painful. Evoke pictures and emotions via language that stimulates the imagination.

In my years as a clinical psychologist, hostage negotiator and professor of leadership, I have learned how being filled with curiosity in others can make a leader inspiring, sometimes charismatic and thereby entertaining.

An ability is needed to communicate one’s beliefs sincerely to create a feeling of security and trust. It is caring and daring in action.

The brain needs to be kept curious and engaged to keep learning. A leader who is easy and convincing to listen to triggers the imagination. By establishing a secure base and trust, that leader can stimulate a vital willingness to take risks. Essential alongside inspiring the listener is instilling the belief and motivation to act without fear of failure. Only by exploring and risking failure can one develop.

 

Do not be a hostage to your limitations

Yes, it’s a choice and a learnable talent. Inspirational skills and even charisma can be learned. It requires practicing correctly and having a teacher or mentor. Improvisational theatre is one technique, media training another. 

As a model, consider King George VI of Britain. He was a shy man with a terrible stutter who never expected to rule. But his elder brother’s abdication, imminent war, and the rise of radio required an unprepared and unwilling monarch to step up. As the film The King’s Speech showed, professional help and practice enabled transformation. He was not a hostage to his limitations. He chose to transform himself and, in that sense, nothing is impossible. Mind matters. 

Dr George A. Kohlrieser is Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership Program.

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George Kohlrieser - I by IMD portrait

George Kohlrieser

Dr George A. Kohlrieser is Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership Program.

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