Olivia Fox Cabane: What Makes Someone Charismatic?

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Charisma Myth" by Olivia Fox Cabane. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes someone charismatic? Are some people just born that way or is it a trait that can be learned?

Charismatic people are magnetic: their personalities make you want to spend time with them. According to Olivia Fox Cabane, the author of The Charisma Myth, charisma is a combination of three traits: mindfulness, authority, and goodwill.

Here is a breakdown of each trait so you can better understand what charisma is.

Deconstructing Charisma

Before we cover how you can become the most charismatic person in the room, we need to know exactly what makes someone charismatic. When someone seems mesmerizingly charismatic, Cabane asserts that they’re projecting three irresistible qualities: mindfulness, authority, and goodwill. Whenever you interact with someone, you subconsciously rate them on these three qualities, which we’ll explore in detail in the coming sections:

  • Mindfulness shows they are regarding you with their full attention.
  • Authority shows they have the ability to influence others and make your life better.
  • Goodwill shows they’re likely to treat you well.

Cabane argues that your brain is self-serving and pulls you toward people with these charismatic characteristics because it senses they have the greatest chance of improving your life.

Simon Sinek’s Alternative Definition of Charisma

Other authors seem to have slightly different definitions of charisma than Cabane. For instance, in Start With Why, Simon Sinek contradicts Cabane by arguing that charisma is unrelated to personality—in his eyes, anyone can be a charismatic leader as long as they’re passionate about an ideal-driven mission. To illustrate, Sinek cites the difference between Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, Gates’s replacement as CEO of Microsoft. Gates is introverted and awkward, but he’s more charismatic and inspiring than the boisterous Ballmer because of his conviction in his mission.

However, on reflection, Sinek’s definition of charisma may not be too different from Cabane’s, as this kind of clear, noble vision exhibits the same three qualities that Cabane claims make an individual charismatic. The pursuit of a noble cause conveys goodwill, not just toward you, but toward a larger group—sometimes, the whole world. An organizational vision also conveys authority—no one would follow a visionary leader if they didn’t believe they had the potential to succeed. Such a clear vision also implies a degree of mindfulness, as passionate leaders display the ability to completely focus on their goals. In this way, inspirational leaders may unintentionally create charisma as a side effect of their lofty ambitions to help the world.

Mindfulness

Cabane identifies mindfulness as the secret ingredient of charisma—the number one factor that determines how much someone will like you. The more mindful you are when interacting with someone, the more charismatic you’ll come across. Even a few minutes of your full attention can make someone feel powerfully connected to you. We all want to feel like we’re the one thing in the world that matters to someone, even if it’s just for a moment.

On the other hand, Cabane warns that if you talk to someone, implying that you care about what they have to say, but keep getting distracted by other things on your mind, they’ll sense you’re being inauthentic—one of the least charismatic qualities possible. Instead of sensing that you’ll make their life better, they’ll subconsciously feel like you can’t be trusted and pull away.

Cabane recommends intentionally practicing being fully present in your everyday life. This won’t come naturally—our brains are wired to constantly seek out new stimuli, on the lookout for danger. We’ll discuss some specific ways you can practice mindfulness a little later.

Even Mindfulness Alone Affects People Deeply

Mindfulness may be an even more important factor to charisma and human connection than Cabane suggests. Evidence shows that you don’t necessarily need to be uniquely confident, clever, or entertaining for people to find you charismatic—it may be enough just to be especially mindful.

One of the most striking illustrations of the power of mindfulness is The Artist is Present, a 2010 performance art piece that spanned three and a half months. Artist Marina Abramović sat at a table in the Museum of Modern Art for seven hours a day as thousands of people queued to take turns sitting across from her. Some visitors sat with Abramović for hours on end, and many were brought to tears by the emotional weight of the experience.

Abramović made an effort to mindfully regard each participant with her full attention, and this is all it took for crowds of New Yorkers to desperately want to sit with her. “I [gave] people a space to simply sit in silence and communicate with me deeply but non-verbally,” said Abramović in an interview. “I did almost nothing.” Abramović’s simple yet powerful mindfulness exercise shows that, with practice, mindfulness alone can become an effortless way to deeply connect with others.

Authority and Goodwill

Authority and goodwill initially seem like opposites—compare a ruthless, authoritative CEO with a kindhearted charity worker. However, Cabane argues that both authority and goodwill are necessary elements of charisma. Since people with both authority and goodwill were so rare in the early years of human history, our brains find this combination of traits in others extremely compelling.

(Shortform note: This theory—that our ancestors primarily judged each other by authority and goodwill—is the foundation of a social psychology framework called the “stereotype content model.” In theory, people form prejudiced stereotypes of other individuals and groups based on how much authority and goodwill they perceive them to have. The model is intended to add complexity to how we view prejudice—not all negative stereotypes trigger the same emotional reactions. For example, a group stereotyped to be high in goodwill but low in authority—the elderly, or the disabled—will evoke pity rather than pure distaste.)

According to Cabane, someone with authority has mastery over the world. They’re at the top of the dominance hierarchy and have the power to get what they want. Someone who seems confident is reflecting a belief in their own authority. Meanwhile, someone with goodwill regularly shows love and concern to those around them. We’re comfortable when they’re around because we sense they have our best interests at heart.

Note that it’s important to maintain a balance between the authority and goodwill you project. Cabane explains that you’ll come across as less charismatic if you have one but not the other. If you project authority without goodwill, you’ll come across as arrogant and aloof. If you project goodwill without authority, you’ll come across as needy and eager to please.

How to Maintain Goodwill While Exerting Authority

While Cabane emphasizes the importance of balancing authority and goodwill, she doesn’t go into great detail on how to maintain this balance. Here are some tips on how to be assertive without alienating others:

Set boundaries and calmly enforce them. This is the golden rule of balancing authority and goodwill: Clearly define what behavior you’re willing to tolerate. By communicating what you need from others and establishing consequences for when your expectations aren’t met, you prove that you’re not afraid to exert your authority. At the same time, keeping a cool head while enforcing clear boundaries will prevent you from coming across as tyrannical or unreasonable.

Be willing to feel uncomfortable. It’s common to feel intense discomfort when setting new boundaries, especially when you’re accustomed to exerting more goodwill than authority. You may be afraid of coming off as pushy or difficult. However, there’s nothing unreasonable about setting appropriate boundaries. Once you push through the discomfort, you may find that others respect you for showing authority, especially if you continually make it clear that you have their best interests at heart.

Seek feedback from others. It can be difficult to gain an accurate perspective on your balance between authority and goodwill. Seek objective feedback from others to make sure you’re not being too harsh or lenient with your boundaries or letting your emotions get the best of you while communicating your needs to others.
Olivia Fox Cabane: What Makes Someone Charismatic?

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Charisma Myth summary:

  • How charisma is a set of habits and behaviors that anyone can learn
  • How to become a magnetic presence wherever you go
  • Why it’s more important to be a charismatic listener than a charismatic speaker

Hannah Aster

Hannah graduated summa cum laude with a degree in English and double minors in Professional Writing and Creative Writing. She grew up reading books like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials and has always carried a passion for fiction. However, Hannah transitioned to non-fiction writing when she started her travel website in 2018 and now enjoys sharing travel guides and trying to inspire others to see the world.

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