We often hear that someone is a “natural leader”—but leadership presence is something you can develop over time, said Tony Alessandra, Ph.D., speaker and author of Charisma: Seven Keys to Developing the Magnetism That Leads to Success.
Some leaders seem to have been born with charisma, he said, citing former U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton. Others, such as the late Lady Diana, attained charisma through hard work and personal transformation.
Given enough time, practice, and the right know-how, individuals “can make a pretty dramatic change and improvement in the way they come across to other people,” he said.
People admire leaders for qualities such as integrity, honesty, and the ability to inspire. While those qualities may sound lofty and abstract, it’s possible to develop leadership traits by following a few practical steps.
Alessandra and a few CPAs offer suggestions for increasing your personal charisma and leadership presence:
Work on one area of focus at a time. “Here’s the key: We want it to be evolutionary, not revolutionary,” Alessandra said. In other words, he said, don’t feel pressured to transform your leadership style overnight. “Work on one thing at a time, and one aspect of one thing at a time,” he said. For instance, you might focus on your body language, tone of voice, public-speaking skills, or capacity for listening.
Keep your eye(s) on the ball. Eye contact is key in making a strong connection with another person, said Greg Brenan, CPA, CGMA, audit partner with Hannis T. Bourgeois LLP in New Orleans. Looking someone directly in the eyes shows that you’re interested in what they have to say, sincerely listening, and not distracted by anyone or anything else, he said. It also indicates self-assurance.
“For folks to want to follow you, you’ve got to have a certain self-confidence and project that out to them,” Brenan said.
Close your mouth, open your ears. “Good listeners draw people to them,” Alessandra said. “People who only talk at times push people away from them. We love to be around people who listen to us, who listen to what’s important to us.”
Listening hasn’t always come easily to Sarah Hofkens, CPA, but she knows it’s important for gaining trust and respect.
“I have a tendency to want to jump in, because I think I know what the problem is, or I think I know what they want,” said Hofkens, a senior manager for Cook & Haugeberg LLC, based in Fairbanks, Alaska. “One thing that I’m consciously trying to work on is to listen to whatever someone has to say and wait until they’re done—not try to think about my response as they’re speaking, but to really focus on what they’re saying.”
Get feedback. Ask friends and colleagues for their impressions of your tone of voice and body language. Record video of yourself giving a presentation, and look for ways to improve your delivery. Alessandra suggests recording a substantial phone call and listening back to your tone of voice to look for areas of improvement.
Thomas Huling, CPA, learned from college communications classes and at the AICPA Leadership Academy that he needed to improve the tone and delivery of his voice.
“I’m not overly charismatic in my day to day,” said Huling, a senior staff CPA with Thomas, Head and Greisen PC in Anchorage, Alaska. “I speak in a monotone and I’m kind of subdued, so I’m consciously aware that I need to be more animated when I’m talking.”
Adapt your style to your listeners’. Increase your personal magnetism by paying attention to social cues and responding accordingly, Alessandra advised. One person may like to chit-chat at the beginning of a conversation, while another may want to get right down to business. Some people may want a lot of detail, while others want to go straight to the bottom line.
“When I ask for the time, I don’t want to be told how to build a watch,” Alessandra said.
Think about how you use space. Hofkens has learned that something seemingly as inconsequential as the placement of office furniture can have a big impact on how others view you. She once held a difficult conversation with a subordinate who was facing her head-on. The setting felt confrontational, and it led to the other person shutting down and becoming disengaged, she said.
“When I want to talk to one of the staff members about something that’s not exactly pleasant, I would prefer not to sit them directly across the desk from me,” Hofkens said. She prefers having the other person sit at a diagonal to the side of her desk rather than directly in front of her.
“That way it seems like, ‘We’ve got to talk about this, but I’m here to support you to make things better,’” she said.
Another option: Take a difficult conversation out of the office completely. Talk with the other person in a neutral location, such as a coffeehouse or over lunch in a restaurant.
Eddie Huffman is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C. To comment on this story, email associate editor Courtney Vien.
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