Why Clarity and Conviction Beat Charisma by Dan Coughlin

Communication is obviously essential to being an effective leader. So what makes for really effective communication?

Here are three definitions from Merriam-Webster Dictionary to consider:

Charisma – a special magnetic charm or appeal

Clarity – the quality of being expressed, remembered, and easily understood in a very exact way

Conviction – the feeling of being sure that what you believe or say is true

Two of these three are essential to being a great communicator and the one that I leave out might surprise you. Many companies still list charisma as an essential leadership competency. I really disagree with that.

Charisma is a personality trait. It is largely inherent in the individual and can be nurtured further over time. Charisma is about how you look and how you carry yourself and how you dress and the tone of your voice and the ability to change the speed and volume of your words. It is not an essential variable of great leadership. Some great leaders had charisma. Some great leaders did not. Some terrible leaders did have charisma. Some terrible leaders did not have charisma.

Clarity is the ability to make a clear and memorable statement that another person can easily repeat and explain to other people.

Conviction is to believe in what you’re saying so strongly that you actually do what you tell other people to do. Conviction happens when you act with integrity, when you’re genuine, when you’re real.

Mohandas Gandhi did not have great charisma, but he had incredible conviction. Martin Luther King, Jr. had incredible charisma and he had incredible conviction. They both believed in their core that non-violent resistance was the key to massive civil rights change. And they were both two of the greatest leaders in the history of the world. Charisma was not the key factor.

People say Steve Jobs had great charisma. I actually think he spoke very clearly with great conviction. Think of a person who had great charisma, but his or her words rang hollow. I was going to throw a few politicians from the past fifty years under the bus, but I’ve decided not to. You can choose your own examples of ineffective leaders who had charisma, but lacked in clarity and conviction.

Ask People to Explain What You Just Said

If you’re wondering whether or not you’re clear, ask someone to repeat what you said and what it means to him or her. And then don’t blame the other person if he or she can’t articulate what you just said. The problem isn’t with the other person. The problem is with your statement. It is not clear.

How Buzzwords Kill Clarity

“We’re going to tackle that mountain. We’re all in this together. It’s when things get tough, that the tough keep going. When all is said and done, it’s better to have a lot more done than said. We will leave our mark on history. We fly like birds in formation. We stick together. One right behind the other. Now let’s go charge into the marketplace with a renewed sense of purpose and determination, and let’s take down the enemy and write our name in the history books.”

So, exactly what are we trying to do? Who is going to do what and what objective are we trying to meet?

Just talk clearly. Explain what you want the group to accomplish, why it’s important, and who is going to do specific things to make it a reality.

Metaphors are the Power Tools of Language

A power tool is something you use to get a job done faster than you otherwise could have done it. In communicating, a metaphor can save a ton of time in explaining an idea so that people understand it.

When personal computers were first coming out, Steve Jobs said, “It’s a bicycle for your mind.” That helped people to understand why it was useful to have one. They could relate to a bicycle as giving them independence and freedom to do what they wanted when they wanted to do it, and now they understood how a computer could help them.

A metaphor is a word or phrase for one thing that is used to refer to another thing in order to show or suggest that they are similar. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary) When John Kennedy wanted to accelerate the growth of math, technology, and engineering in the United States, he simply said, “We’ll put a man on the moon by the end of decade.” That did happen, but the much bigger result was the massive growth in electronic technology.

Twenty years later Jobs described a laptop computer as “something you throw in your backpack.” People could visualize that and it made sense what you would do with it. You would carry it around with you like a paperback book or a snack. It made the laptop computer a part of your normal activities.

Do You Really Believe in What You’re Saying?

If you tell your audience that integrity is the key to long-term success and then you cheat on your financial report, you lack conviction. If you tell people you believe in the power of innovation, but you refuse to change anything your company is doing, then you lack in conviction. If you tell people you believe in the power of collaboration, yet you always explain to other people why they’re wrong and you’re right, then you lack conviction.

If you are going to be convincing to other people over the long term, then you have to have enough conviction in your words to actually do what you are saying. Charisma is a short-term attribute. Charisma can win votes in a political campaign or with corporate board members, but charisma cannot sustain itself. Sustainability requires clarity and conviction.

Insights from The Grinder television show

There’s a television show called The Grinder starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage. It’s funny because it makes a whole parody around the difference between a charismatic person (Rob Lowe) and a person who speaks with clarity and conviction (Fred Savage). Rob Lowe plays the part of a tv actor playing the part of a lawyer and then he joins his brother’s (Fred Savage) law firm and tries to act like a real lawyer. He’s charismatic, but he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He asks questions with a penetrating stare and a dramatic pause, but the questions make no sense. On tv, it’s funny to watch that.

Sadly, this is what happens in real life. Some people get a part in business or politics because they have charisma, but they quickly lose effectiveness because they lack in clarity and conviction. After a while people don’t know what this person is talking about and/or the person doesn’t back up his or her statements with actual behaviors. It’s all just charismatic fluff and bluff.

Be clear. Do what you are saying. Back up your words with your own decisions and behaviors. That will make you a vastly more effective leader over the long term than being magnetically charming and appealing.

For more information on Dan Coughlin, click here.

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