Let’s Face It: Charisma Matters by John Antonakis (Full Transcript)

John Antonakis

John Antonakis is a professor of organizational behavior at the Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Lausanne. Below is the full transcript of John’s TEDx Talk titled ‘Let’s Face It: Charisma Matters’ at TEDxLausanne conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Let’s face it – charisma matters by John Antonakis at TEDxLausanne


Take a look at this guy. And by show of hands, and everyone please participate, who thinks he wanted to be an economist when he grew up? A lawyer? OK. One or two. A heavy metal bassist? OK. Yeah. We think a face tells a lot. Does it? It’s not Bon Jovi in the picture. I am. A misguided, indiscreet, 17 year old who initially wanted to be an economist.

But now I study psychology. I also study faces, you’ll see why in a minute, and, charisma. I grew up in South Africa which cultivated my interest in charisma. I saw my dad as a community leader running for about a dozen elections and winning most of them. I saw my mum managing her shop and getting the most out of her staff. I saw South Africa transition peacefully from apartheid to democracy mostly because of one great leader. Nelson Mandela.

So, I have often wondered: What is charisma? Can it be measured? Can it be developed? I became a professor in the Faculty of Business and Economics at the University of Lausanne. But at times, I have felt like a particle physicist studying the Higgs field. Charisma is hard to define, hard to measure, but its effects are evident to see. Like the Higgs field charisma gives mass, gravitas, not to particles, but to social movements.

Just when I thought I was beginning to make a bit of progress, in 2005 my world was turned upside down. A study published in the journal Science by Alex Todorov’s lab at Princeton University, showed that naive subjects were able to predict the results of congressional elections merely by rating the faces of the winner and runner up. What? I thought when I heard it. Impossible! Only in America! Would this work in Europe?

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So you can better understand what they did, take a look at these two guys. By show of hands, who of the two seems more competent? More intelligent? More leader-like? Who thinks the guy on the right? OK. A couple of hands there. The guy on the left? OK. Evident majority and the majority got it right.

Now, you don’t know them. These two guys ran for the Wisconsin senate seat. On the right, is Timothy Michels, a Republican. On the left is Russell Feingold, a Democrat, who actually went on to win. Whether a pro- or anti- whatever, pro-gun, anti-gun, pro-God, anti-God, pro-gay, anti-gay — in a couple of seconds, a room of a couple of hundred people predicted the voting outcomes of a couple of million who had a lot more information than you did.

Is there something in politician’s faces that signals their competence, or do we carry some evolutionary baggage that biases our judgement towards more beautiful, more symmetric and healthy looking faces? I repeated the experiments here. Surprisingly, Swiss subjects were able to predict the results of French parliamentary run-off elections.

To entertain the evolutionary argument I re-ran the experiments with young, very young children from 5 to 13 years. Now, such young children don’t know competence, intelligence or leadership, but they do know what a boat captain is. So we asked them to play a boat game and they had to select the boat captain from among the pairs of faces of the French elections. The kids were as accurate as the adults. A 71% hit rate at the individual level, and 85% hit rate when we averaged the results. A kid of 5 or 65 “voted” in the same way.

Come, let’s try it here with some election races from my experiments. Who thinks the guy on the right would make a better boat captain? Evident majority. I don’t even have to go to the left. Let’s try the next one. Who says the guy on the right? OK, 2 or 3 hands. The guy on the left? OK you guys are doing amazing!

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Two more to go. This is a test to see how normal you are. OK, don’t laugh! They haven’t chosen their faces, OK. Who says the guy on the right? OK, hardly anyone. The guy on the left? All right, evident majority.

Last pair. Who says the lady on the right? OK, majority already. Fantastic! Well done. You guys did excellent. 5 out of 5. You are normal, just like the 5 five year olds! Give yourselves a round of applause. Come on. Yeah, yeah you passed the test.

That’s how I felt when I actually published these results in the journal Science. I was rocking. I was the man. On top of the world. But, in private, faced, yeah, faced with this result, I wondered, what am I suppose to teach? What am I supposed to teach if one’s ability to succeed as a leader depends on one’s face? How could I justify my professorship? Should I change career and become a plastic surgeon?

I have found similar “face effects” in a variety of situations, in politics, in academia and the business world. Some expert I was on leadership. I knew nothing. But one thing I knew for sure is that we have a tag around our necks. People size us up on how we look; our face, height, whatever and put a price on the tag. If we look like a million dollars, they fill in the blanks and assume we have lots of positive characteristics. If we don’t look like a million dollars, well, then we have a problem.

So I set out on a mission. How can we change the price people put on our tag? The answer — with charisma. Charisma is symbolic influence rooted in values and emotions. By symbolic I mean, represents something. Stands for something. Something that can be seen, touched and smelled.

Let me show you the results of six studies my co-authors and I have undertaken all focusing on that alchemic ability to connect. We narrowed charisma down to several charismatic leadership tactics, which I will describe in a bit.

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In the first study we filmed EMBA students giving a speech. Then we trained them to use the tactics and filmed them again. Independent judges rated the speeches. We found that the EMBA students were able to double their use of the charismatic leadership tactics. Charisma could be taught and the more charismatic leadership tactics were in the talk, the more the students were seen as leader-like by others. This study is important because we controlled for communication skills and for the constant effects due to the target person, which includes their face, what they look like.

The EMBA students were able to change the price people put on their tags. We found the same results in a field experiment with managers. We replicated this using only women leaders. The use of these tactics is not the province of men. With these tactics we can predict who will become the President of the United States of America and this, controlling for incumbency and for macro-economic effects.

Recently we’ve been interested to see the impact of charisma on worker performance. We recruited 106 temporary workers, to prepare postal mail for a fundraising campaign on behalf of a charity. Unbeknown to the workers, we randomized them into one of three conditions. In the first group, the baseline, the workers had no bonuses and received a standard motivational speech given by an actor. A rather normal looking kind of guy. I guess you would agree.

We motivated the second group with bonuses for good performance and they received the same standard speech too. The third group had no bonuses but received a charismatic motivational speech. Relative to the baseline, both bonuses and charisma, significantly increased worker performance, and their effects were statistically indistinguishable. This charisma result is crazy because it’s not well explained by current economic theory. We got increased performance, basically for free.

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