UNITED States President-Elect Barack Obama, US presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, Japan's former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, Britain's Tony Blair, Microsoft founder Bill Gates and the late Pope John Paul II are just a few of the many people on the world stage to be accorded the epithet "charismatic".
Charisma, literally "the gift of grace", is a somewhat allusive term that describes the personal appeal or magnetism that gives an individual influence over a large number of people. It is also a term that is being used with increasing frequency in the business and political arenas. So what exactly is charisma and what might we expect from a charismatic leader?
Charismatic people are able to inspire others, often by their oratorical skills. Also they have this unique ability to sense and to articulate their audience's emotions and inner feelings. They are intuitive and inspirational and are able to use these qualities to cultivate a universal appeal.
As George W. Bush himself acknowledged: "I have good instincts and relate well to all kinds of people." Although not generally credited with being charismatic, President Lyndon Johnson was reputed to have a "psychiatrist's capacity" in understanding people. Charismatic people have the ability to make everyone that they communicate with feel important.
Charismatic leaders have a gift for defining a vision and moving people towards the future. Frequently, this is propelled by a crisis. In the absence of a crisis, they need to create one or, at least, make people aware of a sense of crisis or urgency.
This can then be translated into a mission that needs to be accomplished. When elected to the White House in 1960, John Kennedy was able to focus upon civil rights and poverty as a way of making Americans feel that they were rallying behind him as part of a noble cause.
Two decades later, Ronald Reagan, "the great communicator", was able to rally the Americans in his crusade against the "evil empire" or the Soviet Union to similar effect.
People are often more forgiving when a charismatic leader makes a mistake. In some instances, it can actually endear the leader in that it makes them appear fallible and, in the same vein, more human. As John Kennedy commented in the aftermath of the abortive Bay of Pigs initiative: "The worse I do, the more people love me".
Bill Clinton walked away from the Monica Lewinsky episode having escaped impeachment and with his popularity still intact.
It is said that 1960 was a turning point as far as US elections were concerned. This was when the youthful and charismatic JFK defeated his Republican opponent, Richard Nixon. The crunch was a televised debate in which Nixon appeared tired and haggard. He allegedly refused the services of the television company's makeup specialist. Kennedy's campaign managers were able to exploit this to Kennedy's advantage with the catchy phrase: "Would you buy a used car from this man?"
There is a tendency to assume that charisma is a trait that all leaders should possess. But it can also be destructive. Charismatic leaders are often at their best when there is a crisis or at the inception of a company or new venture.
They offer bold, simple, unambiguous solutions which they inspire others to pursue with unwavering commitment. The flip side of this is that charismatic leaders are prone to becoming bored with day-to-day administrative issues and with detail, and often find it difficult to accept information or views incompatible with their own world view.
Attribution theory suggests that we are more likely to make positive attributions in the case of a charismatic leader. In other words, they are perceived as being "good" leaders simply by virtue of the fact that they are charismatic.
Possibly the one historical leader who has been credited as possessing charisma even though he is universally reviled was Adolf Hitler. Hitler had one skill that surpassed everything else. He knew what made his followers tick.
Are charismatic leaders born? Or can charisma be developed? Charismatic leaders cannot be created, but individuals can cultivate charismatic traits. They do so by cultivating an optimistic view and using passion as a catalyst for generating enthusiasm, and by focusing on a common threat or goal. In other words, it is possible to project charisma without being inherently charismatic.
To millions of people, Pope Power arrived in 1978 when Karol Wojtyla strode onto the world stage. Pope John Paul II was the first Pope to have had the epithet "charismatic" bestowed upon him by the world's media. He was able to reach out to Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Yet history has identified a pattern. Charismatic leaders replace non-charismatic leaders and vice versa. For example, Tony Blair replaced the more downbeat John Major as British Prime Minister in 1997. Likewise, Blair's successor, Gordon Brown is not noted for his oratorical skills. Often described as "quiet and contemplative", Pope Benedict XVI is again different from his predecessor.
Charisma can mask more fundamental and enduring qualities that a leader may or may not possess. Only time and history will tell whether a charismatic leader lives up to people's expectations of him.