UT Study: Charismatic Leadership Can Be Measured, Learned

KNOXVILLE — Much has been written in business management textbooks and self-help guides about the role that personal charisma plays in leadership. In “Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge,” authors Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus wrote that “charisma is the result of effective leadership, not the other way around.”

But according to a newly published study co-authored by University of Tennessee, Knoxville, communications studies professor Kenneth Levine, until recently no one was able to describe and measure charisma in a systematic way.

The study, “Measuring Transformational and Charismatic Leadership: Why Isn’t Charisma Measured?,” appears in the December 2010 issue of the academic journal “Communication Monographs,” published by the National Communication Association.

Levine said the large amount of academic literature on charismatic leadership never explored what it means to actually communicate charismatically.

“There’s this illusion that we know what charismatic communication means, but in the research I reviewed, no one had ever really looked at that,” he said.

Levine and his co-authors, Robert Muenchen of the UT Statistical Consulting Center and Abby Brooks of Georgia Southern University, surveyed university students and asked them to define charisma and discuss how they thought charismatic leaders communicate.

Everyone has a leadership capacity in something, Levine says. “But we found that if you want people to perceive you as charismatic, you need to display attributes such as empathy, good listening skills, eye contact, enthusiasm, self-confidence and skillful speaking,” he said. Those are the attributes social scientists can measure to more fully understand charismatic communication.

Levine says the most surprising result was that the students felt that charisma was not just something you are born with, but something you can learn. “We asked the question ‘What is charisma?’ and their answers tended to start with ‘the ability to…’ Well, abilities are believed to be acquired attributes rather than inbred traits, so a lot of people must believe that charisma can be learned.”

Levine says future research will include building on these concepts to better measure the level of charisma of individual leaders.

The National Communication Association (NCA) is the largest national organization to promote communication scholarship and education. A nonprofit organization, NCA has over 8,000 educators, practitioners and students who work and reside in every state and more than 20 countries.

C O N T A C T :

Kenneth Levine, UT School of Communication Studies (865-974-0696, klevine1@utk.edu)

Charles Primm, UT Media and Internal Relations (865-974-5180, charles.primm@tennessee.edu)

Mark Fernando, National Communication Association (202-534-1105, media@natcom.org)

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