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The ‘it’ factor

Times Staff Writer

DECKED out in her best black pants and rhinestone tank top, dark unruly mane tossed over her shoulders, Janet Gredler sits at one of a dozen intimate tables in a darkened bar and surveys a smorgasbord of eligible males -- handsome rogues, cherubic charmers and brainy entrepreneurs.

She and about two dozen men and women are here because they have the confidence and chutzpah to participate in a grueling white-knuckle phenomenon known as “speed dating.” If ever there was a Darwin-esque event designed to favor the socially astute, this is it.

The daters are presentable, attractive and engaging. But for all the attention and effort they will put into showcasing their strengths, the one characteristic that will set them apart in these abbreviated meetings is something they’ve probably never considered. It’s charisma.

In interpersonal relationships, politics and business, this mysterious quality often trumps appearance, personality and, sadly, even character.

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At no time in history has charisma wielded such a mighty social sword, media experts say. Where once we formed impressions based on lengthy face-to-face contact, books and letters, we now also rely on information fed rapid-fire and piecemeal through iPods, e-mail and sound bites.

“If you’re a business leader or an office manager, you’ve really got to have some measure of charisma to succeed these days,” says Jackson Bain, founder and chairman of the Alexandria, Va.-based communications counseling firm Bain and Associates. Bain has been teaching media skills to executives and politicians for more than 20 years. “You have to be able to make a strong first impression very quickly,” he says.

Recognizing the need for that elusive “something,” business schools are teaching a charismatic leadership style incorporating vision, passion and personal connection to employees; self-improvement gurus and authors are making buckets of cash by promising to transform the shy or lovelorn into dynamic entrepreneurs and fearless Casanovas; and political consultants are routinely tutoring their clients on how to harness it.

Perhaps nowhere is the force of charisma more apparent than in the political arena, where having a boatful of charisma is like holding four aces. In California’s gubernatorial campaign, Democrats Steve Westly and Phil Angelides, neither of whom are generally referred to as sizzling, have struggled to identify themselves to an electorate at times bedazzled by the hugely charismatic incumbent, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

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Despite political stumbles, Schwarzenegger has a virtual reservoir of charisma-power, built over years of exposure in films and public life, says Tracy Westen, chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. That will stand him in good stead as he faces the winner of the June 6 primary in November.

“It’s very hard to drain it,” says Westen, also an adjunct professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication. “It’s like Cary Grant running for office. A few encounters won’t change that reservoir.”

And in any given election, he says, about a third of voters will base their vote on a candidate’s charisma. “Some voters focus on issues, while some are short-cutters and look to endorsements,” Westen says. “Then there’s the third group that looks at the personalities or characteristics of the candidate. And those are very much influenced by charisma.”

Charisma is not constant. It changes with circumstances, perception and, sometimes, the way it’s used. But in today’s environment, the spoils often go to whoever can communicate likability, intelligence, competence and leadership -- all neatly assembled in one package -- the fastest. In short, the most charismatic, be it in a bar or a boardroom.

But even as daters, business leaders and politicians scramble to master it, neuropsychologists and social scientists are still struggling to determine exactly how charisma works.

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Intangible, but powerful

Charisma, by its nature, is elusive and difficult to study, but most experts agree that it involves a combination of enthusiasm, extroversion and good listening skills.

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More specifically, they suggest that charismatic individuals have more variance in the pitch of their speech -- that is, their speech pattern goes up and down -- they are more likely to smile and initiate physical contact and, consciously or unconsciously, they tend to mimic the body language of their listener.

But there’s something else too. Charismatic people appear to tune in to other people to the exclusion of all else, leaving the recipients of all this glorious attention believing that there has been an emotional connection. As a result of the contact, the recipients feel special and consequently good about themselves.

In short, recipients get a quick snort of happy dust. A mood boost.

Few people are completely immune. “Go to one of your colleagues and engage them in conversation,” says Bain. “As they are talking, open your eyes just slightly wider, listen with your head slightly tilted, so it really looks like and appears like you are actually listening to them harder, more interestedly, and watch how they go on.”

In a groundbreaking study at UC Riverside, published in the winter 1981 issue of the Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, researchers Howard Friedman and Ronald Riggio identified 27 expressive, or charismatic, people and paired them with non-expressive people. They found that after spending time alone in a room with a charismatic person, the mood of the non-expressive participant more closely matched that of the charismatic person. In other words, the enthusiasm of a charismatic person appeared to be contagious.

Charisma, it seems, is a process -- a two-way street. Some researchers say it also may be biological. Jodi De Luca, a neuroscientist and adjunct professor at the University of Tampa, Fla., has studied charisma as a component of human emotion for 15 years.

De Luca believes that the interaction between a charismatic person and the object of his or her attention might involve a chemical detected by the olfactory system. The chemicals could act like pheromones, chemicals more commonly associated with regulating certain sexual behaviors. These chemicals, in essence, could be putting the “animal” in “animal magnetism.”

Smell is a very primal sense, De Luca says. “I believe there are people we are drawn to by the unconscious attraction of pheromones and other chemicals.”

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Georgios Triantis, a communications researcher at the University of Connecticut, believes there’s a cortical, or thinking, component and a subcortical, or reptilian, component in how we perceive charisma.

In one of Triantis’ studies, he asked 16 subjects to rate 200 speeches and determine whether the speaker was charismatic. He found that most raters could peg a speaker as either charismatic or not within 10 seconds of observing a speech. In other words, there’s a basic intellectual recognition of the trait, as well as a visceral, or subcortical, drive to recognize it.

Subcortically, Triantis says, we may be hard-wired to perceive charisma in the same way that we perceive anger. It makes sense for people to be able to read emotions that are critical to them for survival.

For that reason, evolutionary biologists believe that the quality of charisma has probably been around since the first caveman walked out of the cave and said, “Follow me.”

It would have taken a charismatic leader, for example, to convince a nomadic group to settle down, to take up new tools, to band against a common enemy.

“Dominance hierarchies are important for the protection of the group in times of danger and for choice of mates,” Friedman says. Early leaders, it seems, weren’t necessarily the cerebral type.

“If you were living in [medieval times] and every few years a marauding tribe would come through and kill and rape everyone and burn your village,” Westen says, “you would tend to look to someone who is big and strong and willing to protect you.”

Over time, however, perceptions of charisma changed -- as did the types of leaders, and mates, we chose. But the importance of charisma has, if anything, grown.

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Changing with the times

Today, presumably because our elected officials spend much of their time building coalitions to support certain objectives, we tend to seek out someone who’s good in public meetings and at public speaking, who can persuade others to go along with us.

And the same hard-wiring that draws us to the charismatic leader, by extension, draws us to charisma in a potential mate.

“Having a very persuasive, engaging personality, one that sweeps other people along, is part of what we look for,” Westen says.

Charisma’s center-stage role in today’s political arena couldn’t have happened without several historical developments.

It took a giant leap with the advent of the raised speakers’ platform, which tended to reward political candidates and leaders who could stand up straight, look good and had a booming voice. Then radio brought politicians’ voices into homes, and TV plopped them down into living rooms.

Media analysts say that the emergence of electronic media is accelerating the ascendancy of charisma. “We are becoming more and more electronic-media dependent,” Westen says. “More visual and less textual, and that tends to reward people who can communicate through that medium, which is a skill.”

Westen believes that a recent socio-political development -- the blurring of party lines -- has given charismatic politicians an additional boost.

“We’re finding that basic assumptions about what Democrats and Republicans stand for are shifting,” Westen says. “As those lines get blurred, voters tend to look at other personality factors, including charisma.”

Charismatic leaders also tend to emerge in times of crisis, when conventions are tested, and old rules don’t apply. This can occur on a small scale, such as within a company, or on the world stage.

According to Warren Bennis, the founding chairman of the Leadership Institute at USC, because of the turbulence of the last few years we’re very receptive to charismatic leadership.

“The community structure might loosen over time,” says Bennis, who has written books on leadership, “but when threatened by an outside force, the group will reorganize around a central figure for its own safety.”

But while charisma might propel a candidate to victory, actions while in office tend to neutralize its power. Savvy challengers can even use that to their advantage.

This more modern, nuanced view of charisma could ultimately aid gubernatorial hopefuls Westly or Angelides.

“People can project a certain charisma that’s right at a certain time for a certain audience,” says Westen, “but that can change. The audience can suddenly interpret those same personality characteristics differently.”

For example, a quality that initially seemed like resolve may over time seem more like stubbornness. “It can be turned around,” Westen says, “like the picture that asks: ‘Is it a woman or a vase?’ ”

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The dark side

For all of charisma’s dazzling appeal, it isn’t always accompanied by personal ethics. In the wrong hands, it’s a loaded gun.

Charismatic speakers can sweep people along -- sometimes in the wrong direction. “Charismatic leaders can inspire blind loyalty, particularly in times of crisis,” says Bennis. “Hitler reportedly was very charismatic.”

In relationships, the magnetic appeal of a charismatic partner creates the potential for abuse or victimhood. “The charismatic person conveys a warmth and openness, an ability to listen and project concern or compassion -- even when they might not have any,” says Gail Wyatt, a clinical psychologist and professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA. “These people seem like they’re really into you. And they draw people to you on that basis,” she says.

Certain types of people are more receptive than others to charismatic personalities. “A person who wants to be dominated in a relationship may be more susceptible to a charismatic personality,” she says. Charisma can also blind people to a charismatic person’s faults. “People are taken advantage of sexually or in a long-term relationships,” Wyatt says, “because of their inability to see the person for who they really are.”

When Wyatt’s clients seem to make the same poor choices in a mate over and over, she can often blame charisma. “I’ll say, ‘What is it about that person [that pulls you in so strongly]?’ And they may start describing someone’s who’s warm and loving, but they’re not actually. It’s all for show. And there begins the therapy.”

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Lacking that ‘something’

Back at Club Cohiba in Long Beach, the speed-dating session sponsored by Cupid.com/PreDating is over. There seems to be consensus among the men that at least two of the women, Gredler and a friend who came with her, are charismatic.

As the men filter out, about half a dozen of the women linger to compare notes. All of the men were nice, energetic and engaging, they say cautiously.

The women look around at the now-empty tables, visualizing the men that were moments ago sitting there, bringing their A game, showing their best stuff.

But the would-be daters shake their heads glumly. They were nice, says one. They had many fine qualities, ventures another. What about the ruggedly handsome fireman? Nope. How about the lively therapist? Nada.

But surely, at least one of them must have that elusive quality the Greeks call “the gift”?

“When someone has charisma, you know it immediately,” Gredler says. “They walk in the room, and everyone looks at them. It’s unmistakable. Too bad it wasn’t here tonight.”


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