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Leadership Development

Get Yourself Some Executive Charisma

Even at a round table, someone sits at the head. And that applies in every occupation.

It's not always the brightest in the business specialty or the one who produces measurable results. It's someone who is memorable, impressive, credible, genuine, trusted, liked, cool, calm, collected, comfortable, and confident—er, charismatic.

Executive charisma is the determining factor behind why two people who enter similar careers with comparable intelligence, ambition, education, experience, and competence achieve vastly different levels of success. Armed with executive charisma, you can sit at the head of the round table and have influence even when you have no power.

Executive charisma is not celebrity over leadership, style over substance, success over character. It's not adding inches to your biceps or getting brighter, whiter teeth.

Civil and Aware

My definition, garnered from interviewing some 2,000 CEOs and other C-suite executives over a 30-year career and writing eight books about it: Executive charisma is the ability to gain effective responses from others by using aware actions and considerate civility in order to get useful things done. You know "it" when you see it. You remember the times you have had a glimmer of this intangible thing yourself.

Can it be taught? Yes, like accounting, kayaking, or golf, charisma can be taught. Consider this: You didn't come out of the womb a born golfer. You were born with basic ability that was then developed or not. You get a golf club put into your hands at age 3, practice hitting balls with your mom or dad at 6, and you take golf class in high school and golf lessons after school to develop ability and skill. Early exposure is just a beginning, followed by a will to continue to train and study it. You have to want to learn.

Why should you learn it? You've worked really hard to get where you are in life. You've studied, labored, gone the extra mile, taken on additional responsibility, honed your instincts, developed sound judgment, dressed for success, learned to think strategically, and assembled a top notch staff. You plan, budget, and master the art of problem solving. You sense and set direction—and multitask out the wazoo.

Yet despite all that effort, you still haven't achieved the significant success, effect, or influence you want. As I once heard someone put it, "My name is not on the right door." The missing piece of the puzzle is executive charisma.

"It's Up to You"

How can you get it? First, accept that you were born with more "personal appeal" (that being the dictionary definition of charisma) than you see in yourself. The sad fact is that the ability you were born with has ended up hidden and undeveloped because of schooling, religion, parents, and society. A "charisma stick" (like the golf club) wasn't put in your hands at age 3.

Second, understand that it's up to you to uncover your charisma. I'll dissect my definition of executive charisma to explain how to enhance what you have already.

The ability to gain effective responses from others requires a physical presence and demeanor that makes you interesting and approachable vs. intimidating and off-putting.

You're always being watched by someone; that's why they call it being in the "public eye." You might hope people don't take notice, but they do, and you have no stunt double or instant replay for your behavior. Stand tall, straight, and smile instead of having a hunched over, harried, nose-to-the-grindstone posture with a grimace on your face.

The Physical Dimension

To stand tall and straight, lift your rib cage off your pelvis, pull your stomach to your spine, and breath. To smile, relax your jaw, keep your lips apart, and turn up the corner of your mouth—even when you're mad or sad. You look confident and comfortable in your own skin, which causes people to want to listen to what you have to say and offer.

Use aware actions:

• Deal with others as human being to human being, not role to role.

• Use good-natured humoring to break down barriers erected by titles, power, and position.

• Slow down your talk, walk, and movement to relax yourself and calm those around you.

• Shut up and listen. Focus on what others are saying, instead of thinking about what you're going to say next. Be a good listener even if you don't like what you hear.

• Ask questions as your main communication tool. You avoid being a know-it-all, and you let others be in the spotlight.

• Reach out and touch both literally and physically. Instead of a handshake, try a hand sandwich.

Like the Golden Rule

Have considerate civility. People will want to be around you only if you make them feel good about themselves when they are. You have to make them feel better, do better, look better by how you interact with them. It's basic golden-rule stuff: Do unto them as you'd like done unto you. The defining difference between the charismatic and the noncharismatic is that the charismatic person keeps at it even when he or she doesn't get it.

Get useful things done. Be competent in producing needed results. Be exceptionally skilled. Bring a lot to the table. Just don't expect that to be sufficient. A lot of people are full of substance. Few have substance and an effective style.

Be consistent. If you put on the show only for people who count, you're fake. You have to think, act, and relate with a charismatic comportment with everyone and everywhere for it to be genuine. If you conclude "this is an act," you're right. But you're "acting" in a good way, with awareness and considerable civility to get useful things accomplished.

And expect to work on your executive charisma until the day you retire. If you're at the same level of executive charisma that you were last year, you'll get run over, because your competition is working to get better right now.

Debra Benton, founder and president of Benton Management Resources in Ft. Collins, Colo., has 20 years of experience as a coach to CEOs and other executives. Her client companies have included Campbell's Soup, Dell Computer, McDonald's, and Time Warner. She is a speaker, blogger, and author of eight books, including Executive Charisma and How to Think Like a CEO. Her most recent offering is CEO Material: How to Be a Leader in Any Organization (McGraw-Hill, 2009).

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