“Enthusiasm” and “Charisma” Are NOT Greek to Effective Leaders

I have just returned home from my first trip to Greece, during which I was mesmerized by tours of the ancient sites on the Acropolis and in Olympia, finding it fascinating to imagine life there 2500 years ago. It was history made real for me. That’s why we travel, right? It’s about learning something new, having our minds widened and our experiences grow. One of the things I learned on this trip was the etymology of the word “enthusiasm.” It comes from ancient Greek and derives from en (“in”) + theos (“god”) and means possessed by the spirit of the gods. This meaning evolved into the relatively negative connotation of over the top religious fervor until the 1700’s.

Of course now we think of enthusiasm in a positive way and no place more so than at work. Enthusiasm among our colleagues and our leaders inspires us to work hard and work together toward a common goal. I find it to be a crucial element of real leadership charisma,  another word that has it roots in ancient Greek, meaning the hero receiving gifts and favors from the gods.

I first experienced real leadership charisma in my early days at The Times when Lance Primis was the head of Advertising Sales, his position when I was hired as a research analyst (I’m breaking one of my cardinal blog rules here: I vowed to never talk about anyone without their permission but I am not in touch with Mr. Primis, and I think most reasonable people would interpret my memories as positive. I apologize if anyone is offended, particularly Lance Primis).

The Advertising Department was large then and I was the lowest ranked person in a support department. Yet, whenever Lance passed me in the hall he addressed me by name, asked me how I was doing and made a positive comment about something I had done or reminded me how important what I was working on was to The New York Times. When he was later promoted to President of the company he used those skills – and charisma does consist of skills that can be taught – with a broader but equally as appreciative audience. On the day that Lance Primis left The New York Times a crowd gathered in the lobby that consisted of every echelon of worker – from pressman to electricians to maintenance staff to ad sales managers to the guys who drove the delivery trucks – thanking him and applauding him for his service.

Some of the research on charisma in leadership shows how important it can be for an organization. Studies by John Antonakis and his team at the University of Lausanne Business School showed that workers who received a charismatic motivational speech had significantly increased performance that was indistinguishable from the performance increase that resulted from a bonus that was offered. In other words, increased performance with NO economic incentives.

Charisma is an intimate, personal interaction style. It is looking at each employee as an individual and knowing how “being seen” in that way makes an individual feel. But there are styles and techniques in communication that enhance a leader’s charismatic expression that emerged from Antonakis’ work (see “Can Charisma Be Taught?” by Mark van Vught, Psychology Today, May 5, 2012):

  • Use metaphors such as “We must change course.” It helps your audience relate to the message.
  • Use stories and anecdotes, as personal stories are the best-remembered parts of a speech.
  • Display moral conviction such as “This is the right thing to do.”
  • Stress that this is the task or result for the group and not you; e.g., “We will be stronger.”
  • Set high expectations for yourself and your followers.
  • Communicate confidence.
  • Use rhetorical questions to make your vision their vision.
  • Use body gestures to increase your presence.
  • Use facial expressions to show confidence.
  • Keep your voice animated.

These techniques for skill development are best for presentations and large-scale communication. For day-to-day skill training, I’d recommend that leaders focus on understanding their own emotional self-awareness and emotional self-control. Pay attention to others. Learn how what you do and say affects them.

I am making a real distinction between charisma and a charismatic leader, which is a defined leadership style that is dependent on the personality of the leader in question. Charismatic leaders are often a catalyst for social change. They are, however, not a fit for organizations that depend on rigid structures and processes to function. These types of leaders tend to develop tunnel vision around organizational direction, and not learn from their mistakes.

I left The Times more than 20 years ago. I was too junior to know if Lance Primis made good management decisions or if his vision of the future of The New York Times was a strategically sound one. But I do remember that he inspired me. Because of Lance I learned to get to work early and keep my desk clean. I learned that employees are your work family and you should treat them as such. I learned that part of being a leader is reminding people how important they are to the company and you do that by knowing their name, knowing what they’re working on, knowing when they have a sick child at home.   Lance Primis inspired me. I only hope that I have been able to inspire others in the same way.


“How can you have charisma? Be more concerned about making others feel good about themselves than you are making them feel good about you.      — Dan Reiland

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Darnell Newsum says:

    Kathi – this is a great chapter! Enthusiasm and charisma can go a long way to inspire others and I also remember Lance Primis as a leader. I would say you have also inspired people in the workforce – you are a leader in the true sense of the word. Being aware of how your words and actions impact those around you is an important lesson – I hope this article inspires many to reflect. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jay says:

      When it comes to charisma, Kathi knows whereof she speaks. Anyone seeking charisma would do well to heed her words.

  • Sophie says:

    I agree that having an inspiring and charismatic leader goes a long way – even over economic incentives! Though those help as well :). Lance Primis sounds like one heck of a leader. Thank you for sharing, Kathi!