04/22/2013 03:10 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

True Charisma


"Charisma is the fragrance of soul." -- Toba Beta

Recently someone asked me: "What's the secret to charisma?" This got me thinking. What did she see that she interpreted as charisma, and what is it, exactly?

What is this mysterious "secret" quality that makes some people appear powerful and attractive to others?

Charisma comes from the Greek word, "charis," meaning a divine gift or grace. Merriam-Webster defines it as "a special magnetic appeal; a compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others." We often believe charisma is an elusive quality people come by naturally, easy to spot in influential people, great leaders, or fascinating public figures. We assume it's an innate characteristic bestowed at birth; either we have it or we don't, as if some lucky people are born under a brighter star.

This is a tricky assumption. We often confuse charisma with a narcissistic wounded ego. We risk being seduced by individuals with a puffed-up, grandiose need for attention. Spellbound, our fascination can lead us into potential emotional, spiritual, financial, and even physical danger.

Historically, we've seen leaders in business, politics, religion, personal development and spirituality misuse the power of personal charm or celebrity, to devastating effect. I wonder if those close to Bernie Madoff considered him a charismatic man. Or how about Burt Lancaster in The Rainmaker? He played Starbuck, who blows into a parched rural town during a long drought promising rain for $100. Caught by our despair, and blinded by fantasies of how life could or should be, a charismatic figure offers us the moon and we hand them the farm.

Lately, I've been watching persuasive entrepreneurs who've developed multi-million dollar businesses based on manipulative techniques and our fears around failure. Books, videos, and systems are sold to us so we can learn how to "persuade" others to buy our products, and we're told that it's for their own good. These "charismatic" leaders, sometimes well-meaning, reinforce the idea that we need to cajole, persuade, influence, and manipulate our way to success in today's world. They earn a lot of money, and others are desperately looking to do the same. So often we end up disappointed, and sometimes financially devastated as well.

Why do we love reality television? Many "charismatic" celebrities have drawn attention to themselves through effective PR, crazy antics in and out of rehab, and other methods to achieve visibility. We're fascinated by these attention-seeking behaviors, when what we're really watching is someone acting out of childhood difficulties, rather than a mature adult self. Is this really charisma? Healthy adult behavior isn't particularly dramatic. It actually defuses drama, and so it isn't riveting entertainment and doesn't capture ratings. But sometimes we can't stop ourselves from watching a train wreck.

When we're young, we often look for validation outside ourselves. We naturally want to feel accepted and cared for, and we think if we mimic an alluring quality we see in others, we'll become attractive, too. We want to feel special like those celebrities, imagining we can know them, see them, tweet them, and maybe even be them. Hence, we become copycats in fashion, demeanor, and outrageous actions. It's a natural developmental stage we all go through, and we can and need to grow beyond it to maturity. We learn that trying to be someone else is a false trail, and only works when others are kept at a distance, because we can't sustain it for long.

It's not just the charismatic seducer that's responsible for this dance. We have our piece of responsibility here. There wouldn't be an external pull if in that moment we weren't feeling some degree of desperation, lack of self-confidence, or low self-esteem. Perhaps we're seduced by our own desire to be rescued from our internal pain and external difficulties. We give away our personal power to people we believe have magical gifts that we do not. When we see charisma or charm as a divinely-conferred gift of power, mysterious and bigger than life, we're too easily influenced by others, well meaning or not. We need to face this directly, and when we do, we see spiritual and psychological growth.

I define charisma differently, and there's really no secret to it. True charisma, in my view, is a divine grace bestowed upon all of us, because we're both human and divine. True charisma requires bringing our awareness inward. As we go deeper, we become genuinely ourselves, and as a result, more attractive to others. We no longer desire to fascinate or manipulate others into following our agenda. We release the need to bring constant attention to ourselves, trying to appeal to everyone, and we relax into our true nature. This brings us greater fulfillment, success, and peace.

As a young actor, I learned that when I worried about what the audience was thinking of me, I was no longer in the scene. I'd disconnected from my inner life, and therefore from the audience. The scene was never as good or engaging. When I managed to stay in the moment, unconcerned with how I was perceived, I sustained my connection with the audience and brought my character to life. That's how it is in our lives. When we're connected with our deepest source, we allow our soul to emerge.

True charisma is the result of spiritual and psychological growth. This growth allows us to sink into who we truly are at our core. As we connect with the divine within us, our true self shines through. We become more attractive regardless of our appearance, our influence, or our external success.

It may not look like being president, a movie star, or a spiritual luminary, and you don't have to be an extrovert to have true charisma. Have you ever been to a gathering and noticed a quiet person exuding something powerful? You may have been picking up on their wisdom or compassionate nature. These qualities arise from within and have no need to draw attention to themselves. Ironically, when we're truly charismatic we're genuinely interested in other people, not just ourselves. We see ourselves as an integral part of the beautiful web of humanity, interrelated, and important.

True charisma comes from living authentically. The right people are drawn to us. We build a life that feels good, fun, and nourishing. We relinquish the need to rule the world, our office, or our relationships. It's simple, but like many simple things, it takes time and focus to develop. We need only be ourselves to become powerful, attractive, and most importantly, make a real contribution to life.

Have you been drawn in by "charismatic" people? In what ways have you experienced your true charisma?

Please share your thoughts; your comments make a difference for all of us.

For more by Jennifer Howard, Ph.D., click here.

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