Terry-Thomas and Doris Day in Where Were You When the Lights Went Out? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #796

Charisma beyond Leadership: Influence + Affability

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.

Key Concept

Why Being a Middle Manager Is So Exhausting. Eric M. Anicich, Jacob B. Hirsh. Harvard Business Review (March 22, 2017). Through a series of empirical studies exploring the concept of charisma outside of an organizational leadership context, a team of researchers identify the two core dimensions of personal charisma and show that charisma is an informal personality trait observable in any context.

Idea Summary

What is charisma? Much of past research focuses on the outcomes of charisma and often within the context of leaders in an organizational setting—e.g., charismatic leaders generate emotions that inspire others to follow them. 

However, leaders are not the only people in our lives who exhibit charisma, argues a team of researchers from the University of Toronto. We can observe charisma in our friends, family members and even strangers. In a series of studies involving hundreds of volunteer lay participants, the researchers explore the informal, general charisma that occurs in our everyday lives.

The first step in studying charisma outside of the organizational leadership context was to reveal the personal qualities at the heart of charisma. To that end, the researchers asked a group of volunteers to each name four characteristics of charismatic individuals (focusing on hypothetical individuals rather than specific examples such as political leaders). A second group of volunteers then rated the resulting set of 100 characteristics on how closely they defined charisma, and a third group took the resulting trimmed down 40 characteristics and named which ones applied to them. The researchers then conducted factor and other analyses of the data that emerged from these studies, which led to the identification of the two core dimensions of charisma: Influence, which is the ability to guide others, and Affability, which is the ability to make others feel comfortable and at ease.

With the two dimensions identified, the researchers developed and tested a tool for measuring charisma, called the General Charisma Inventory (GCI). The GCI is based on three items measuring Influence and three items measuring Affability, as follows:

  • Influence—broken down into the items of Influence (Has the ability to influence people), Presence (Has a presence in a room), and Leader (Knows how to lead a group)
  • Affability—broken down into the items of Get Along (Can get along with anyone); Comfort (Makes people feel comfortable) and Smile (Smiles at people often).

With their newly created charisma measurement tool in hand, the researchers conducted a further series of empirical studies that yielded the following insights:

  • Charisma is observable. Separate studies showed that family and friends discern charisma in an individual, but even strangers who interact for just a few minutes can observe the charismatic traits of the other person.
  • Charisma correlated to a certain extent with such personality traits as emotional intelligence, openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, and political skill. 
  • The Influence dimension of charisma was closely related to the trait of Competence, while the Affability dimension of charisma was closely related to Warmth.
  • There was no discernable link between charisma and intelligence.
  • The Affability factor of charisma makes individuals more likeable — even more than personality traits such as agreeableness and extraversion. Influence, to the surprise of the researchers, was not correlated with likeability. 
  • The impact of charisma on the persuasiveness of an individual varies based on gender. The influence factor renders both men and women more persuasive. The affability factor, on the other hand, is an asset for persuasiveness for women, but neither helps nor hurts the persuasiveness of men. 

Business Application

In studying charisma outside the context of leadership, this research reveals characteristics and nuances of charisma that may in fact help organizations to identify high potential individuals for their leadership pipeline, notably:

  • Don’t overlook charismatic individuals who are not (yet) leaders. Individuals can be perceived as charismatic without being in a leadership role. Within five minutes, in one experiment, 50 groups of paired individuals meeting for the first time were able to accurately assess whether their interaction partner was charismatic. Whether engaged in a leadership activity or not, individuals with the potential to be charismatic leaders will be perceived by others as possessing the combination of influence and affability that can lead to leadership success. Thus, an effort to discover overlooked charismatic individuals in your organization might lead to unexpected targets for leadership development.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of affability for women leaders. When the research focused on the leadership outcome of persuasiveness, affability proved for women a potent tool for persuasiveness. Gender expectations related to leadership can often hamper women leaders; a show of strength, for example, is advantageous for male leaders but disadvantageous for women leaders. From this research, we might extrapolate that in situations of persuasiveness, charismatic women have an advantage over men, who must rely solely on their influencing skills. 
  • Your perceptions of your own charisma are most likely accurate. Repeatedly through these experiments, the researchers compared individuals’ views of their own charisma with how others perceived them and found a consensus: that is, people’s self-reported charisma matched their charisma as seen by others. Charismatic individuals reticent about leaving their ‘comfort zone’ should be convinced that their charisma would be visible and impactful as they seek new challenges and pursue their ambitions.  

Organizational leaders may discover other ways to apply to their specific situations the lessons of this unique perspective on informal charisma.

Contact Us




Idea conceived

  • July 2018

Idea posted

  • June 2021

DOI number



Real Time Analytics