How To Be A Charismatic Leader – What We Can Still Learn From Steve Jobs

17. september 2014

Af: Mette Vesterager, Hein & Partnere

Charisma seems almost as an ineffable, magical quality some leaders have been blessed with, but several studies point towards: 1) Communication is key, 2) It can be learned.

At first it might seem odd that communication is perhaps the most central aspect of leadership. Isn’t leadership about making things happen? Not just talking, but walking the talk? The reason is that communication is not just words trying to mirror a reality. Communication shapes our reality by creating meaning. And meaning is a primary generator of action. While a lack of understanding hinders our ability to act, clarity promotes it.

Now consider some of the most charismatic leaders. Think about the Obamas, Richard Branson and Margaret Thatcher. A key characteristic of them is their amazing rhetorical skills. Keep in mind here that rhetoric is not used as a term to denote empty words. Rhetoric is the applied art of persuasion. A charismatic leader employs rhetorical strategies to persuade followers to think and act in certain ways.

Steve Jobs is for many the epitome of a charismatic leader. A recent study investigates his rhetorical skills. What did he do so well? The simple answer is that while he changed his rhetorical style across situations, the central themes remained the same. Or put in another way: He balanced continuity with customization.

Continuity

A charismatic communicator is an authentic communicator with a strong integrity. He is not a flip-flopper, not someone who simply says what the crowd wants to hear. There must be a certain degree of continuity across different situations.

What needs to be similar is central themes and root metaphors. Root metaphors are metaphors that represent an underlying worldview and thus shape how we interpret what is being said.

Central themes for Steve Jobs were the future, technology/products and people. A root metaphor was “business as a journey”, which hints to the well-known expression “life is a journey” and thus also creates a sense of a deep connection between his central business themes and the fundamentals of life.

At a D8 conference interview, he said: “The way we’ve succeeded is by choosing what horses to ride really carefully, technically. We try to look for these technical vectors that have a future and that are headed up and you know. Technology, different pieces of technology kinda go in cycles, they have their springs and summers and autumns and then they, you know, go to the graveyard of technology. So we try to pick things that are in their springs”.

Note how his use of metaphors: “horses to ride”, “vectors” and the cycle of technology with its various seasons supports the underlying root metaphor: “Business is a journey”. And how together they support and bind together the central themes of future and technology. Last, but not least he manages to put this into a bigger perspective. The journey is in fact the cycle of life repeating itself.

It all might look very simple or coincidental, but I assure you it is not. What’s more: This kind of communication is very, very powerful.

In a CNBC interview concerning Apple’s strategic decision to move from IBM as their supplier of memory chips to Intel, the “business is a journey” root metaphor was used to reframe the interviewer’s interpretation of the situation as “business is war”. While the interviewer were looking to emphasize the conflict between Apple and IBM and talking about the “dramatic move”, Jobs managed to portray Apple’s decision as a “gradual transition” in the normal course of doing business.

At the D8 conference Jobs also said: “There is tremendous teamwork at the top of the company, which filters down to tremendous teamwork throughout the company. Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them all the time (…). That’s what we do really well”.

This is an example of another central theme for Jobs: People. Notice how he continuously uses the inclusive pronoun “we” as well as refers to “teamwork” and “trust”, while complimenting his employees.

Customization

But charismatic leaders of course do not simply keep pushing the repeat button. They are able to adapt to the situation. To create a unique relationship between themselves, their message, the audience and the whole context. Every situation has a unique configuration and a great leader is able to identify it and act accordingly, in particular through applying appropriate rhetorical styles.

Important is the blend of the use of pathos, logos and ethos, the three persuasive appeals to emotions, reason and character of the orator. Is it time to ignite the emotions of your crowd? Would a formal style work better? Or should you use your credibility to get the message across?

When Steve Jobs as a company leader has to defend a strategic decision, his style is composed, explicatory and neutral. At the D8 conference, his status is quite difference. He is an icon in the high-tech industry sharing his wisdom. Correspondingly his rhetorical style is courteous, entertaining and informal.

His rhetorical style thus depends on how the audience perceives him, which is quite different depending on if he is in court, being interview by a critical journalist or is a head speaker of an event. What he does so well is to adapt to those situations.

Sum-up

The case of Steve Jobs shows how being charismatic can be boiled down to a few principles that anyone can learn:

Be consistent

  1. Be clear on a few, central themes that define you and your business.
  2. Find corresponding root metaphors that can be applied across situations.
  3. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

Customize

  1. Know your audience. What is their emotional state? What is their view on the subject? How do they perceive you?
  2. Adapt to the specific situation. Select appropriate rhetorical style and appeals (logos, ethos, pathos).
  3. Pay particular attention to your credibility. That should be your driving force, when you customize to a particular situation. If you have a high ethos you can often apply a more informal style.

 

References:
Heracleous, L. and Klaering, L.A. (2014). Charismatic Leadership and Rhetorical Competence: An Analysis of Steve Jobs’s Rhetoric, Group & Organization Management 1-31.

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