For weeks I had been researching what science has to say about the power of charisma. Why do some people so clearly have it and others don’t? Why do we fall so easily under its influence? Charismatics can make us feel charmed and great about ourselves. They can inspire us to excel. But they can also be dangerous. They use charisma for their own purposes, to enhance their power, to manipulate others.
Scientists have plenty to say about charisma. Individuals with charisma tap our unfettered emotions and can shut down our rational minds. They hypnotize us. But studies show charisma is not just something a person alone possesses. It’s created by our own perceptions, particularly when we are feeling vulnerable in politically tense times. I’m going to tell you about these studies and spotlight the opinions of the neuroscientists, psychologists, and sociologists who conducted them.
But first I want to tell you about a magnetic preacher who spent decades wowing audiences in churches across America with the holy words of Jesus. Then he lost his faith and now preaches about how to live happily without God. What scientists study about charisma, Bart Campolo lives.
I first read about the newly non-believing Campolo in The New York Times Magazine last December. “An extreme extrovert, he was brilliant before a crowd and also at ease in private conversations, connecting with everyone from country-club suburbanites to the destitute souls he often fed in his own house,” wrote Mark Oppenheimer. Campolo’s father is Tony Campolo, one of America’s superstar evangelists for the past 50 years, who counseled Bill Clinton through the Monica Lewinsky scandal, and today continues to mobilize people into a movement for Jesus’ messages of love and redemption.
Who would know more about the power of charisma to both charm and deceive than a preacher’s son gone rogue? Campolo, 53, who today volunteers counseling young people as a “humanist chaplain” at the University of Southern California, didn’t disappoint. He was wonderfully frank and engaging, energetic and insightful, just like a, well, evangelical preacher.
The early 20th-century German sociologist Max Weber wrote charisma is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Such qualities, Weber wrote, “are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader.”
Campolo had long believed that was true. “I was convinced charisma flowed directly from God,” he told me. “It was a gift.” As he began to lose his faith, he said, “I passed through every stage of apostasy on my way to heresy, I slowly left my ability to believe in all this stuff.” He began to preach that charisma may be something you’re born with, but it wasn’t supernatural; you could employ it at will. “You can use it to get women in bed, you can use it to win people down the aisle for Jesus, or you can use it to sell insurance,” Campolo said. What’s more, it was a quality that could, at least in part, be learned and perfected.
Who would know more about the power of charisma to both charm and deceive than a preacher’s son gone rogue?
That was precisely what John Antonakis, a professor of organizational behavior, and the director of the doctoral program in management at the University of Lausanne who has spent years studying charismatic speakers, told me. “Charismatic techniques can be taught,” he said. Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated, representative gestures at key moments. When taken together, he has shown, they have helped decide eight of the last 10 presidential elections. “The more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” he said. (Read here how Antonakis breaks down the CLTs of super-popular TV preacher Joel Osteen.)
Tony Campolo had mastered all the tactics. In the 1970s and ’80s, Bart Campolo and his father traversed the country in a beat-up, sky-blue Dodge Coronet, giving sermons wherever they could. Campolo marveled at his father in action. “My dad was one of the most charismatic people in the world,” Campolo said. “I’ve been around black preachers and people like my dad, who can go up and down the spectrum, do the whisper that you can’t help but listen to, tell the joke, then tell the tear-jerking story, and then the fiery fulmination. He can do it all over the map.”
Many of the most important lessons of Bart’s vocation came after the elder Campolo’s sermons were over. That was when Bart’s dad would ask his son what he’d seen, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Like how to read a room.
“You try to figure out who’s the most difficult part of the room,” Campolo said. “Say you’re at a college campus and there’s a bunch of athletes sitting on the back row. If you don’t get to them, they’re going to hurt you all night long.” So before you get up to speak, Campolo said, you go to the back of the room and talk to the potential troublemakers. “You might say, ‘Hey man, why did you choose this school? How did you here?’ You try to get those people on your side even before you get up on the stage.” Or you seek them out while you’re speaking, making eye contact, reaching directly to them…