Monday, January 10, 2011

The Charisma Effect

"I was told I was selected class speaker because of my deep voice, my "charisma", and the work I had done in the community. There was no mention of my academic work..." - Charles Harper, MDiv Yale University

Recently we had the pleasure of talking to Diane Hanbury King, one of the great teachers (60+ years) in the history of dyslexia. When asked about particular gifts or talents she noticed in her students with dyslexia, without skipping a beat, she answered, "Charisma."

This would not be the only time we'd hear about charisma. Dr. Julie London of the Cass Business School also told us that she often noticed that the highly successful dyslexic CEOs that she met in her research and mentoring program had charisma.

The origin of the word charisma apparently comes from the Greek word kharisma for favor or divine gift. Without a doubt, there is something to charisma - and it does seem to be a gift, although there are many sides to the gift, and hence this post.

Dyslexics don't have a monopoly on charisma, of course, but it is a real phenomena and dyslexics (as well as non-dyslexics) of all ages can show charisma. Charisma by itself seems to have lots of advantages, but also potential disadvantages especially in the setting of learning obstacles like dyslexia.

The presentation is often very different depending on whether high or normal levels of charisma are present. When a student is very charismatic, they don't seem to have the struggles that more ordinary-c students might have. The reason they don't is because all or most of their teachers love them. Every report card showers them with "a pleasure to have in class", and so it may not matter if they have a 504 or IEP, they'll get whatever they need anyway because their teachers want to help. Parents may be exasperated, though because they really might not be able to read or write or do math, and if something isn't done, these students can take big falls with standardized tests. These students tend to do very well with a little extra support though - because once the problem is identified and their network takes over, friends, teachers, neighbors, etc. will come out of the woodwork to help them.

From Psychology Today's take on charisma: "Charisma is, in fact, just short of magic: It's a rare quality by common in figures who inspire devotion. "Charismatic people are essentially brilliant communicators," says Ronald Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College in California. One of the few researchers to have taken a hard look at this mystical quality, Riggio believes it consists of overlapping components such as expressivity, sensitivity, control, eloquence, vision, and self-confidence."

Charisma is still too complex a phenomenon from which to get a precise read from the biological point of view, but a recent research study designed to look at what happens when test subjects are favorably inclined toward a person ("I like him"), found that it's the the posterior cingulate and amygdala (both emotional centers) that gets activated.

Not surprisingly, there's a lot of interest in searching for charismatic CEOs. To read about another charismatic dyslexic CEO, check out this Business Week article on Cisco's John Chambers.

Charles Harper
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