This article discusses some recent theories on Charismatic Leadership—Weber’s Theory and research conducted at the University of Lausanne. Next, it will explain how charismatic leadership is essential to engineering development. Furthermore, it will show how Steve Jobs displayed his charismatic leadership in his speech at Stanford University’s 2005 commencement. Lastly, there will be a personal anecdote of how charismatic leadership helped a team of engineering and computer science majors develop toys to help children learn to sequence.


Weber’s Theory on Charisma

Many would like to think of charisma as a mystical gift of charm and allure given to the world’s most fortunate individuals who grow up to become politicians, activists, celebrities and other public figures and influencers. But what exactly is this omnipotence of charisma that enabled Lincoln to motivate people to risk their lives in combat, allowed Dr. King to have thousands march with him to Washington, and enabled Steve Jobs to have an entire corporation support his unprecedented ideas? According to Weber’s theory (Beyer, 1999), charisma is a social recipe consisting of:

  1. an extraordinarily gifted person
  2. a social crisis or situation of desperation
  3. a set of ideas providing a radical solution to the crisis
  4. a set of followers who are attracted to the exceptional person and come to believe that he or she is directly linked to transcendent powers
  5. the validation of that person’s extraordinary gifts and transcendence by repeated successes

These are the very circumstances that exist within the engineering world where a charismatic individual is necessary to pursue and successfully overcome an engineering endeavor.

Research at the University of Lausanne on Charisma

Although it is not an easy task, researchers suggest that the art of charisma can be learned and, therefore, engineers can practice these skills to effectively reach their desired audiences. Studies at University of Lausanne conclude that there are twelve tactics that are useful in captivating the art of charisma. Nine of the twelve are verbal:

  1. Metaphors and similes
  2. Analogies
  3. Stories and anecdotes
  4. Contrasts
  5. Rhetorical questions
  6. Expressions of moral conviction
  7. Reflections of the group’s sentiments
  8. Setting of high goals
  9. Conveying confidence

Three are nonverbal:

  1. Animated voice
  2. Facial expressions
  3. Gestures

Examples and Implementation

Charisma is an integral part of engineering development because every successful engineering venture must first develop a following. As Andrew Leigh puts it in “Charisma: The Secrets of Making a Lasting Impression”, even the most fanatical techie, engrossed computer geek, or dedicated specialist to some extent cannot avoid dealing with people. It is through charisma that engineers must learn to convince an audience of a need for their product. Often times, it requires a charismatic individual that can understand the audience and can effectively convey the importance of the product. In early stages, the audience can be fellow engineers that are needed to support the development of a project. This audience can evolve into Venture Capitalists needed to financial support this product. Lastly, the audience is the customer. In all of these stages, effective communication, persuasion, presence and other factors of charisma are essential to engineering success.

Case Study

Steve Jobs 2005 Stanford University Commencement Speech

Steve Jobs, in his speech to the graduating student body at Stanford University’s Commencement, embodied many of the characteristics of what researchers at the University of Lausanne believed it takes to be a charismatic leader. Jobs started off with anecdotes (3) of his unorthodox experiences in academia that contrasted (4) with the typical academic trajectory of his audience—full of professors and graduates. He mentioned how his undergraduate experience was cut short because he could fathom using his family’s life saving to take mandatory classes that he did not care for, a concept that complimented general undergraduate student sentiment (7). He mentions that the only reason he was able to progress from sleeping on dorm room couches to founding a multi-billion dollar company is that he followed his dreams and set high goals (8) for himself by never settling. He continued by suggesting to the graduating class to follow their passions and to not follow anyone else’s preset path, a concept that can be discomforting for a group of graduating students who have spent their lives following the dogma of academia and higher education. But he iterates his point with confidence (9) and affirms is audience by using his own life of many sacrifice and mistakes as an example of what can happen when you persevere and follow your passions. In the context of an engineering obstacles, an engineering leader must possess and practice these qualities in order to not only develop an initial following but also convince a group to keep pushing even when the solution is not clear.

Application to Senior Project

The Green Team‘s project team consisted of five electrical engineering majors and two computer science majors building a collection of toys to help children, ages 2-5, learn to sequence. Our project mentor was that charismatic leader that introduced the team to the unfamiliar concepts of child development and sequencing. By explain how sequencing allows for children to develop the fundamental skills needed for student pursuing STEM fields, he effectively motivated us to use our engineering and computer science know to develop toys that would support sequencing for children.

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