Charismatic leaders – what makes them special?

Written by Debbie Carter on 25 August 2015

This week a new series is being aired on Radio 4 called “Charisma: Pinning Down the Butterfly” over 10 episodes the excellent Francine Stock of the Film Programme fame will present views and opinions about “the alluring yet elusive quality of charisma”.

Fellow BBC correspondent Peter Day has written a blog entitled: “Charismatic bosses: a help or a hindrance?” in which he has tried to identify some of the most charismatic business leaders, past and present, and admitted he had found the task difficult. His candidates were largely American giants from the 19th and 20th centuries: Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Jack Welch. He also singled out Steve Jobs as an exception to the general rule that most charismatic leaders’ careers end in failure! From the UK he named the founder of John Lewis – John Spedan Lewis but felt that no other leader came close in the charisma stakes.

For me the key for business leaders is to have an aura that inspires and drives others to achieve – either the individuals or the organisation as whole. Having met a number of people who have worked with Richard Branson many have described him as inspirational, empowering and insightful – but does that make him charismatic?

My question to the forum is: what makes a business leader charismatic and who decides on that quality, external commentators or the people who work closely with them?

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Submitted on 26 August, 2015 - 11:07

Interesting topic. I've had the pleasure (and pain!) to work for and with charismatic leaders in the past. I think the people working closely with them often don't appreciate or even realise their charisma. So perhaps it's more likely to be external observers or former employees who "get it". There is much talk about Charisma at the moment and a book about to be launched I've got on my reading list: Charismatic to the Core by Nikki Owen (

Nikki Owen

Submitted on 28 August, 2015 - 17:42

Having devoted over 25 years studying charisma I don't believe that you can teach it to others using a traditional behaviours/process/techniques approach. If you 'try' to teach someone a behaviour you perceive as charismatic - if that behaviour is out of alignment with who they really are inside then this creates a lack of authenticity and the person will not be charismatic. Charisma is an authentic power that captivates the hearts and minds of others - when you are being you and you love what you do you shine. Yet being you is not as easy as it sounds because life can be tough and we erect metaphorical barriers around us to protect us. This causes us to disconnect from our innate charisma. I simply help people to release their walls so their natural charisma can shine in a way that is authentic and genuine. My work is very controversial as I have been inspired by esoteric modalities combined with quantum mechanics and cellular biology. It works. Thank you Eva for mentioning my book - Charismatic to the Core - I look forward to receiving the reviews! I've also found that charisma attracts a negative reaction in the business world - yet I think this is because it is seen as something you possess when you 'shout or show off'. Introverted personality types can be charismatic too. 


Submitted on 26 August, 2015 - 14:19

In both of Jim Collins's studies of relatively high-performing 'values' driven organisations (Built to Last - with Gerry Porras) and his study of successful, sustained Good to Great transformations, the absence of charismatic leaders is noted. The tendency is for more of the 'architect-clockbuilder' profile rather than the 'time teller' leader as Collins describes it.

Certainly we've had much more success working in organisations that work with values and aims that fully and deeply embedded/owned at the personal level - so the 'charisma' is a quality expresses by the entire workforce, rather than by a solitary lone ranger figure.

Nikki Owen

Submitted on 28 August, 2015 - 17:47

Nick you make some good points yet I felt compelled to comment. When the workforce is fully engaged and working in flow they they will be expressing their own charisma in their own unique way. Charisma is an authentic power that captivates the hearts and minds of others - you can't build engagement purely by introducing engagement processes. Everyone has charisma yet most people have disconnected from it because of the walls they have built to protect themselves from feeling hurt. You might enjoy my book Nick that takes a controversial view (based on 20 years of research) - Charismatic to the Core



Submitted on 31 August, 2015 - 17:30

A fascinating topic. I think it's useful to make a distinction between charisma, which I consider to be a fairly-difficult-to-change quality, and presence, which is more about behaviour. Of course words can mean whatever we want them to mean, but in my map of the world charisma is not a particularly useful leadership quality - I'm with you there Nick! - but presence, being genuinely available to the other person, is. In some ways it's the foundation of authentic leadership.