2 Leadership Qualities For Hard Times: Character and Charisma

Character and charisma are qualities that have been defined and debated for thousands of years. These are the traits that define the quality of leadership, and the legacy of the leader. In transition and turbulence, both are tested …

Occasionally, when I wake up in the wee hours, I may have a random look on You Tube, or listen to an audio book, to distract me from the mostly imaginary trials and tribulations that tend to plague the newbie entrepreneur.

This morning, I found a random talk on YouTube from Jim Rohn about ‘Character and Charisma’ and while I rested, the discussion really resonated in the half-sleep of the hour with strange connections to the US transition, the pandemic and the characters and leadership in play there, and indeed the problems, opportunities and transitions facing us all in this post-pandemic world.

With regards to the ongoing ‘transition du jour’ in the US, and I will be the first to admit that I have neither the right, nor the reason, to comment directly – it’s your democracy guys and girls, if you happen to live there. I will therefore use this merely as a backdrop to the broader concept of leadership, and the personality traits of character and charisma as they pertain to our complicated little planet.

Anyway, for those who may not be aware of Jim Rohn, you will probably know his one-time understudy and protege, Tony Robbins, who has gone on to do very well for himself!

Jim Rohn was, in his day, one of the leading self-improvement ‘gurus’ and a superb speaker if you are looking for a model in this area. What I like about him is his conversational, almost home-spun way of imparting often complex concepts, concepts that we may have heard of as kids and teens at home, or possibly in church, or similar if that was a part of our upbringing.

When I grew up, we thought ourselves so far ahead of our parents’ generation. As always however, the tendency in the face of complexity, was to run for cover, and to leave these concepts abandoned on the kitchen table with the remains of the day, only to be reconsidered decades later in the light of life’s adventures – but that’s another story.

What are the differences between Character and Charisma?

It is often helpful to look at the origins of a word, such as “character” when trying to understand the concept. And it might also be good to look at the origins of another word, “charisma”, that people commonly confuse with “character”.  The two really quite different.

Charisma is derived from a Greek word meaning “an ability to elicit favor in other people”. It’s a magnetic quality of personality that people respond to, as if it were magic. Charisma is almost like a magic wand that confers power over others.

Character, on the other hand, comes from the Greek word for chisel, or the mark of a chisel. A chisel is a sharp steel tool used shaping wood, or revealing a sculpture from a hard or difficult material, like granite or marble. The chisel is also used for stripping away waste material from an object, stripping away the stuff that might get in the way – in order to get down to the essential thing, the essence that really matters. You’ve got to chisel your character out of the raw material, out of yourself, just like a sculptor does to create a statue. The raw material is always there. 

There is another important distinction between character and charisma that you may have noticed already in both it’s definition and it’s derivation. Character doesn’t refer to other people. It doesn’t refer to having power over other people, or getting other people to follow you, or gaining favor with other people. Character is something that you have, something that you are.

You could be marooned on a desert island and your character would still be important – in fact, it would likely be very important in that situation. Charisma on the other hand would do you no good at all in a desert island scenario. Charisma requires the presence of others, while character is all about you. Character is the person you are after you’ve chiseled, and chiseled, and gotten past all the unnecessary material to what’s underneath. Everything that happens to you, good or bad, contributes to building character.

Since we’re usually surrounded by other people, let’s get a little bit more specific about how the differences between a charismatic person and a person of character can play out in the real world, particularly in leadership situations.

Where Leaders can come a cropper?

In one of his better presentations, Jim Rohn outlined four sets of circumstances that can easily occur and make it difficult for the charismatic leader:

  • A really charismatic person can make people believe there’s pie in the Sky, or that the Sky is going to fall tomorrow, one just as easily as the other. By creating expectations, charismatic individuals can energize and inspire others, or terrify and demotivate them … at least until the overblown scenarios are proven false, and the charisma runs out. But a person of character, doesn’t need to be anyone’s Pied Piper, and generally isn’t comfortable in that role where instead he or she looks within for the true source of inspiration and energy.
  • A charismatic person can inspire devoted, or even fanatical, loyalty. But this can all too easily turn into an unconscious sense of dependency and that can make matters difficult when the leader is no longer available, leaving the organization with a sense of abandonment and a team that may never achieve anything like its prior success. Powerful personalities often resist delegating authority. But it’s an attitude of character for a leader to refrain from making himself, or herself, the indispensable heart and soul of an organization.
  • The third difference between character and charisma is particularly important in a leadership situation. Charismatic people have to keep pulling “rabbits out of the hat”. The magic of their presence has got to keep expressing itself, or people might start wondering where it went. Or worse yet, in this age of media, people might start to get bored.
  • In order to bask in the warm glow of a leader’s approval, people can become reluctant to voice disagreement. In this case, leaders can become isolated because subordinates are afraid of them and this same isolation can occur as a result of misplaced affection. People of character are usually well loved by everyone around them, but they make it clear that their own first love is for the truth, even if it hurts.

Character and charisma are topics that have been defined, re-defined and debated, for thousands of years from leaders such as Alexander the Great, to the great religious leaders, to the great dictators through famous generals such as Eisenhower, Montogmary and Patton in the World War II, and down to our own corporate and government leadership today.

All leaders tend to display both traits, to a greater or lesser extent, on a scale of one-to-ten, if you will. In the final analysis though, character would seem to be what’s left after charisma is gone. Character would seem to trump charisma in the game of leadership, and legacy – that which is left after the government or business leader departs the stage and, eventually, is gone.

Leadership and the Individual

On an individual basis, it is good to remember that in designing your character, or building your business, you too are effectively building your legacy in much the same way as the artist creating a sculpture. Character is not something that “just happens by itself”, any more than a chisel can create a work of art without the hand of an artist to guide it. In both instances, a conscious decision has to be made.

Character isn’t something you were born with and can’t change like your fingerprints, it’s something you weren’t born with, and that you must take responsibility for making. To paraphrase Jim Rohn, “you can create a better life for yourself, not by crossing continents and oceans to the goldfields of California as they did in the days as in the days of the old West, but by crossing the mountains of your soul, and that may be an even greater challenge”.

Character is not something that you settle for when you haven’t achieved what you really want. And, character certainly is not something that automatically develops in you as a result of adversity. Adversity in itself does not build character and success does not necessarily erode it.

If there is something better at the end of the rainbow, then we all have a responsibility to take advantage of it. This is the nature of the human psyche, of life itself … just as the tree stretches to the light. Isn’t it strange that human beings are the only living things on this planet, as far as we are aware, who meet adversity, sometimes real, and more often imagined … and can just decide to stop growing?

You build character by how you respond to what happens in your life whether it’s winning, or losing, every game or any game, getting rich, or dealing with difficult times. You build character out of certain qualities that you yourself must create, and diligently nurture within yourself – just as you would plant and water a seed, or gather wood to build a campfire. You find those things in your heart and in your gut. You can spend a lifetime chiseling away in order to find them, just like chiseling away the marble to reveal a sculpture that previously existed only in the imagination.

The really great thing about character, is that if you’re sincerely committed to making yourself into the person you want to be, you will not only create those qualities, you will strengthen them, and re-create them in abundance, even as you’re drawing on them every day of your life … and even more amazing, that work may be never ending.

Look for Jim Rohn on YouTube and you will see what I mean … you may even find a gem or two to help you on your journey!

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