Want to Know What Charisma Looks Like? Watch This.

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One of my all-time favorite books on leadership presence is Olivia Fox Cabane’s The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism (2012).


Fully debunking the myth that charisma is some X-factor that you’re either born with or not, she operationalizes charisma in a very simple, three-part equation:


Charisma = Power + Warmth + Presence


Power is whether or not you appear to be able to have an impact.

Warmth is the perception of good will, i.e. will you use your power to help me or hurt me?

Presence is whether it seems like you are physically and mentally here with me, 100% attentive and undistracted.


Because these three factors are perceptions, people tend to assess them on first impression, as a gut-reaction, in the “reptile brain,” before logic kicks in; then confirmation bias looks for supporting evidence.


As a result, vocal and visual message delivery (i.e. the sound of your voice; and how you look while talking, such as how you are dressed, facial expressions and body language) are in some ways even more impactful than the facts you verbally claim (valid or otherwise), because they are processed subconsciously.


Ultimately Fox Cabane summarizes charisma as “the ability to move through a room and have people go, ‘Wow, who’s that?’”


Want a crash course in how that looks and sounds in practice (or not)? Look no further than last night’s first Republican primary debate of the 2024 election season.


If you’ve read my election debate analyses in past cycles, you know I keep all political opinion out of it. My goal is to identify best (and worst) examples of leadership communication practices in the event, and present them as case studies for all of us to learn from in order to be more inspiring, influential leaders, whether or not we would ever vote for any of the candidates referenced.


So with that caveat, here are a few select examples of what I’ll call “charismatic do’s and don’ts” from the event.


Track Records as Evidence of Power


Most candidates listed achievements in their current or past roles as senators, governors, business leaders and more as evidence of what they will also be able to do as president (power).


Presenting data is important – but remember that it speaks to the “logic” part of the brain which may or may not register with the listener, as it is not visceral. Good data with poor, unimpactful delivery, is lost value.


When combined, as Ron DeSantis did in his opening statement, with commitments like “…and I will not let you down,” which is an overt statement of warmth, and delivered with a strong, certain voice, and unwavering eye contact, in that moment, it felt like he was talking to me, fully present, and meaning every word of it (presence).


Statements of Identity


Whereas track records are evidence of what you have DONE, statements of identity are evidence of who you ARE, which can reflect power and warmth alike, though sometimes in contradictory ways. For example:


  • Nikki Haley identified herself explicitly as an accountant, implying fiscal responsibility (power and warmth), and a military wife and mother (warmth)
  • Vivek Ramaswamy positioned himself as both product and evidence of “the American Dream” as the son of Indian immigrants, husband and father, and the only non-politician, specifically “the only one up here not bought and paid for” (all warmth)… oh, and an entrepreneur who has built billion-dollar companies (power)
  • Ron DeSantis stated that he was a blue-collar kid, a combat veteran (in Iraq), and a father of three very young children, all of which intend to demonstrate non-entitled, service-oriented mindset and protective nature (warmth)
  • Tim Scott shared that he had been a “disillusioned young man,” from a “single-parent home, mired in poverty,” and whose values around hard work and responsibility were instilled by his mother (warmth)
  • Doug Burgum specified he was from a small town (population 300), who lost his father at a young age and was raised by a single mother, and was a manual laborer most of his life (warmth)
  • Mike Pence frequently referenced both the Constitution and Christianity as his internal compass and driving forces – a combination that could feasibly either make him the most or least trustworthy (warm) candidate, depending on your own persuasion.




Body language is a funny thing, as it usually is an unconscious manifestation of what someone is feeling in the moment.


For example, for most of the debate, Scott had an odd habit of speaking with his head permanently cocked about 30 degrees to his right. Subliminally, that can be interpreted as him saying “Well, maybe…”, or otherwise being “off balance” (undermining power). Ironically, for a conservative Republican, it also literally and figuratively appears to the viewer that he is “leaning left.”


On the other hand, as Scott has a very powerful physical stature (power, positive), it could also serve as a softener (warmth), contrasting against some people’s preconceived (ridiculous) racial stereotypes such as “the angry black man.”


Chris Christie would occasionally shift from “official answer” mode into “let’s get real” mode, turning to face his opponents in center stage and leaning on his right elbow on the podium, a much more casual, “frank” posture. (Presence)


Ramaswamy spent much of the time trying to present himself as a youthful, “new generation” candidate, trying to “have fun” on stage, and using humor, with a big smile across his face (all warmth), distinguishing himself from his more stoic (he might even say stodgy) counterparts. However, at times it bordered on flippant and even potentially irreverent, given the role for which he is effectively auditioning (lack of presence.)


That being said, he also had an impressive ability to flip a switch and look instantly serious, such as when reciting litanies of government agencies he thought should be shut down, and common values that he believes unite the American people and are driving his campaign (power and presence).


Attire is also funny, because we know it’s the ONE thing all candidates can control, and almost certainly agonize over before events like this. Yet while most were dressed to the nines, there were some odd choices.


Asa Hutchinson, for example, wore a red tie, which is classic for Republicans, but the pattern and sheen on it made it look oddly pixelated on television, which was visually distracting and unpleasant (undermining both power and warmth).


Haley’s suit choice was also interesting. It was nice and fit perfectly, but it was an oddly tweed-esque, pastel blue pattern with fringe around the edges. I’m far from a fashionista, but this choice seemed to dive headlong toward the “warmth” end of the spectrum. Perhaps she was trying to be more relatable and approachable to the stereotypical “middle-America housewife” avatar by eschewing anything that looked like a classic “power suit.” To me, it seemed like she traded “power” for that extra “warmth.”


Too Much?


DeSantis was consistently confident and intentional in everything he said (power), but confidence descends into arrogance when it becomes selfishly aggressive in grabbing spotlight time. Specifically, at one point the moderator asked the panel to indicate yea or nay by show of hands on a question as a preliminary visual gauge, but DeSantis jumped in, saying that a “show of hands” was “the wrong way” to do it, dismissing the moderator entirely and hijacking the format, and launched into his answer (undermining warmth).

Three-Dimensional “Miss”


Doug Burgum had the dubious honor of being first to give his closing statement, and his nerves got the best of him.


As I always teach in my workshops, and is the foundation of my book, it’s the simultaneous alignment of verbal, vocal, and visual communication (i.e. words, voice, and body language, respectively) that creates the image of credibility, and Burgum was indeed in perfect alignment… just in all the wrong ways.


Verbally, he stammered, used fillers like “uh,” and “um,” and searched for words. Vocally, his speech was choppy rather than fluid, and he kept clearing his throat. And visually, he kept shuffling his feet and shifting his weight. Credibility was utterly absent in that statement.


The main message he conveyed was, “I’m not confident.” That implies an utter lack of power… and no warmth, because while he poses no imminent threat, he also doesn’t appear to be able to protect us against others who do. (I predict he’ll be gone first.)


“Wow, who’s that?”


If, as Fox Cabane stated, charisma comes down to the ability to make someone say, “Wow, who’s that?”, which candidates had me completely engrossed at one point or another (for better or worse)?


Overall, Haley, Ramaswamy, DeSantis and Christie were the leaders with the greatest number of commanding-presence moments that made me sit up and take notice.


Scott and Pence were both very measured, mostly serious, with energy levels that ranged between 4 and 6 or 7 out of 10. (I don’t think Pence’s facial expression changed once the entire night.) They made no specific mistakes, and made some very good points, but were also not particularly noteworthy.


Sadly, our remaining two candidates, Doug Burgum and Asa Hutchinson, while perfectly nice, and generally unoffensive, were also utterly forgettable.


So what?


None of this should have much if any bearing on whom you vote for, of course.


But I do hope it gives you food for thought, and a new lens to look at yourself and your leadership presence. Most importantly, think of this as a practical “case study tool box” to identify actionable items to help you increase your projection of Power, Warmth, and Presence when speaking to others; in other words, to enhance your natural CHARISMA.

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