Defining charisma is easy: compelling attractiveness or charm. Describing charisma is a little like defining pornography; you know it when you see it. President Bill Clinton has it. So did President Ronald Reagan. Actor Larry Hagman had it. Billionaire Oprah Winfrey’s got it. Princess Diana was charismatic, too.
We all know lawyers and judges who have it. One lawyer could be tall, beautiful and smooth as velvet. Another could be a frumpy elderly guy who resembles a troll. Yet both are extremely charismatic. How can that be? Is charisma something you’re born with — a genetic tendency that’s innate to your personality? Or can it be learned from reading self-help books and signing up for charisma-building workshops?
This is a topic that’s puzzled philosophers and psychologists for centuries. The current research suggests that charisma is in large part a skill that lawyers and judges can master with study, effort and persistence.
• Crafting charisma: one part "of" the people and one part "for" the people. If a tree fell in the woods and no one was there, would it make a sound? If you’re talking about charisma, the answer, it turns out, is "no." Charisma does not exist in isolation. Charisma is a trait that a group bestows upon its magnetic leader when the person appears to be "of" the people and "for" the people all at the same time.
Social scientists generally agree that Franklin Roosevelt, for example, was the most charismatic president to date. Disabled by polio, Roosevelt used his whistle-stop train tours to show a nation paralyzed by the Great Depression that he, too, suffered from daunting hardships. Roosevelt empathized with the people’s pain, and the country returned the sentiment; everyone was on an equal footing.
Roosevelt was "of" the people. He psychologically freed the American people from the Depression with his immortal words: "This is pre-eminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance."
But Roosevelt did not allow his polio to define him; he fought to walk to his spot at the train railing and to stand proudly as he spoke, the same way he encouraged the American people to exercise courage, hard work and endurance to overcome economic despair. Roosevelt’s goals were the nation’s; the country’s goals could be safely entrusted to Roosevelt’s leadership. He was "for" the people.
In response to Roosevelt’s deft performance in these dual roles, the American people conferred upon him the mantle of charismatic leader.
• A charismatic lawyer plays for the jury’s team. The only people who are charismatic are the ones like us. It’s true; research shows that people fall sway to a leader’s charismatic charms only when they perceive the leader to be one of their own. In fact, jury research has shown that jurors prefer attorneys who are nice, polite, sincere next-door-neighbor types over lawyers who are hotheads, showy and overly dramatic.
To be viewed as a charismatic lawyer or judge, then, you must first reveal yourself to your audience in a way that allows them to see how you and they are alike. When jury members see that you empathize with and understand them and that they can trust you to advance your shared goals of truth and justice, that’s when you’ll begin to appear more charismatic. The same is true for judges. If a judge gives the jury members an opportunity to see that they all share things in common, then the jury will be more likely to imbue the court with an aura of charisma.
In the end, the underlying principle is one we apply as jury consultants every time we question jury panel members during voir dire: People like people who are like themselves with whom they share common core beliefs and values. That’s who’s charismatic.
• Charisma: How can lawyers get some of that? About now you’re probably wondering precisely how you build trust with the jury members and show them that in your hearts you are all alike with the same shared goals. The most important thing is to become aware of your own behavior. Most people have no idea how others perceive them. Then study the habits — not personality traits, but behavioral habits — that charismatic people share.
Practice these 12 simple yet profound habits every day of your life until they become as much a part of who you are as your ritual cup of coffee in the morning:
1. Listen to people with your full attention, without glancing at your watch or phone.
2. Look people in the eye and step as close as possible without invading their personal space.
3. Learn people’s names and use them.
4. Speak clearly with intention and conviction, without clutter or legalese.
5. Stand up straight; good posture projects confidence.
6. Smile sincerely with your mouth and your eyes.
7. Praise others.
8. Be humble; laugh at yourself.
9. Never use humor at someone else’s expense.
10. Do not be cruel or speak cruelly of others.
11. Show your passion: be positive, energetic and optimistic.
12. Become less selfish and more selfless.
The real core of charisma comes from being yourself and being open to learning about who you really are. In fact, charisma is the natural end-result of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s concept of self-actualization — "the full realization of one’s potential."
According to Maslow, people who are self-actualized are more authentic, transparent about their goals and committed to using their own resources to enrich the lives of others. The more self-actualized we become, the better we are able to focus and find excitement by living in the moment.
Ask yourself: Have you ever met an unhappy charismatic person? The more we strive to grow as individuals, the more charismatic we will become to juries, judges, other lawyers and our clients. Like anything else that’s new, it just takes practice.
Lisa Blue is a partner in Baron and Blue in Dallas and holds a Ph.D. in psychology. Robert B. Hirschhorn is an attorney and president of Cathy E. Bennett & Associates in Lewisville, Texas.