Last week, I had the pleasure of giving the keynote speech at the 2014 NAED LEAD Conference held in Chicago. Given how the focus of my speech was examining the role of charisma in leadership and how we can develop this trait to inspire and engage our employees, it would seem almost natural that the locale for this keynote was this elegant, almost regal ballroom located in one of the illustrious hotels found along Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile”.
Of course, for those who attended my keynote speech, what was a true reflection of the lessons I shared through my talk was the opportunity to connect with new people to listen to their stories about what their successes and their failures have helped them to learn moving forward.
With this in mind, I want to share with you not the highlights of my keynote speech and the various actionable measures that I taught conference attendees to adopt and apply to their own leadership style of guiding their organization. Rather, what I’d like to share here are my reflections from delivering this message to this audience, and hearing what attendees shared about how they would apply these new insights to become a better leader to those under their care.
To begin, let us first understand that charisma is not simply about having this natural charm or a magnetic aura that some of us seem to naturally possess to draw in those around us. Rather, as the Oxford Dictionary points out, charisma refers to our ability “to inspire followers with devotion and enthusiasm”.
In other words, charisma is not simply about how charming those around us perceive us to be, but our ability to inspire and engage our employees to commit their discretionary efforts to the shared purpose of our organization. That our employees can see for themselves the value they can help to create through their talents, creativity, and insights not just for their organization, but for themselves as well.
Although I demonstrated in my keynote how this is very much doable for any leader, the real question is whether – in the face of today’s fast-paced, 24/7 world with its increasing demands for our time and attention – we’ll choose to simply focus on what will help us clear off our To-Do lists, or whether we’re making efforts to ensure we connect what matters to our organization with what matters to those we lead.
And make no mistake, this is a choice, as much as it was a choice for those various charismatic leaders who we all admire to either accept the reality that they lived under, or whether they would commit themselves to rally those around them to not only expect more from themselves, but from those they agreed to follow.
The point here is that great leaders are not special people because they’re able to attain these grand achievements that leave us in awe. Rather, they are simply people who refused to give up in the face of challenges or obstacles that would prevent them from achieving what they know we need, or what will help us to be better than we are today.
Their focus is not on how they can amass more awards, accolades, and pats on the back for a job well done. Rather, what they focus on is how to make the vision they have for their organization something that we all care about because they connect it to what matters to us; that we can see the value and purpose it will create not just for those our organization serves, but for ourselves as well.
As I discussed in this keynote, we’re drawn to charismatic leaders not for their natural charm, but because they demonstrate a genuine sense of caring for those around them. That the satisfaction they derive from their leadership is in seeing those they lead thrive because our success has become intimately tied to the vision they have in mind for not only how we can do better going forward, but be better than we are today.
Seen from this light, we need to recognize that being a charismatic leader is not beyond our reach; that it’s not a special quality that only those who breathe this rarefied air are entitled to possess and exude.
Rather, this potential lies within all of us – waiting for us to push our focus beyond our smartphones and computer screens, to put down whatever we are busying ourselves with so that we can be fully present to hear and understand what those around us are trying to share.
Of what they need to accomplish and what talents, creativity, and insights they’re willing to contribute that will help them to know that they matter, that they count, and that they are needed to help make the spark in our mind’s eye the reality that we can all live within.
Like those charismatic leaders we all admire, we have to do more than simply get the day’s work done. We have to show those we lead that we care about them, that they are important to us and to our organization. That we can’t climb those mountains that stand before us alone, but with the help that their insights and experiences provide us in making the best decisions and choices as to how we will reach the summit.
In talking with several of the conference attendees after my keynote speech and listening to their stories, of the challenges they faced and the difficulties they saw before them, I reminded them that we can’t go into these moments thinking we know what the solution is. Instead, we have to be open and honest that we don’t have all the answers, but that we’re confident that those under our care can help us to identify and resolve the issues that are holding us back, preventing us from really moving forward through our collective efforts.
I also reminded them of how we not only spend almost a third of our lives at work, but how we often define ourselves in terms of the work we do; why else is the common question we ask people when we first meet them ‘what do you do for a living?’. As such, we need to recognize that by developing our natural charisma, we can ensure that our employees understand why we do what we do, so that they can derive a sense of value and meaning in the contributions they make to our organization.
As I told one conference attendee, you can’t inspire people over the long term by saying how these new measures will make us 30% more efficient than before, or will help us to cut operating costs by 18%.
But you can get them to feel a sense of shared ownership in your vision if they understand that through their contributions, they’re helping to make the lives of those around them a bit better; that we’re either helping them to move one step closer to living the life they envisioned, or that we’re giving our customers one less thing to have to worry about because they know we understand what they need.
That’s why that customer service encounter with the representative from Comcast is garnering so much attention – not just because of the absurd lengths through which this customer had to go through just to cancel his subscription. But because in that moment, we saw an employee who clearly works for an organization that doesn’t understand what’s the value they’re creating for those they serve, and how can their employees can feel like what they do matters.
As the LEAD Conference attendees learned from my keynote, this is the reason why we need to develop our natural charisma – not to make ourselves more likeable or for those we lead to be in awe of us.
Rather, it’s so we can ensure that we’re creating that kind of environment where we’re able to bring out the best in those around us; that we’re not only able to inspire our employees to hope we can make things better, but we enable them to believe that we can achieve this goal through the collective efforts they make to our shared purpose.
That’s why I ended my keynote speech with this message:
People don’t want to be told what to do. They want to be told why this matters.
Every single charismatic leader – regardless of their background, where they’re from, or the values they hold dear – demonstrated this message clearly not only to their followers, but to those outside their sphere of influence. That’s why their words continue to live on in various motivational posters on office walls, in quotes shared in people’s Twitter streams, and scrawled on simple Post-It notes stuck to the side of our computer screen.
Their words not only inspire us to remember what we can achieve, but why we should care about making those lofty goals a reality. They remind us not to settle for the ordinary, but to accept that greatness exists in all of us – that we all have the opportunity to do work that’s not only meaningful and purpose-lead, but one that we can very much say is our calling.
That’s why as leaders, we need to recognize not only the responsibility that we’ve agreed to take on in accepting this role in our organization, but also the privilege we’ve been given to connect our message – our vision of what we want to achieve through our leadership – with the hopes and dreams of those under our care.
If we understand this fundamental truth about leadership – of how we can use our influence, our wisdom and experiences to help those around us feel a stronger connection to each other and to the collective efforts we’re committing ourselves to – we no longer have to aspire to be like those charismatic leaders we all honour and revere.
For in that moment of clarity and understanding, we can finally take the first step to become the kind of leader those we lead need us to be.