in: Featured, People, Social Skills

• Last updated: September 25, 2021

The 3 Elements of Charisma: Power

The charismatic man header.

This article series is now available as a professionally formatted, distraction free ebook to read offline at your leisure. Click here to buy. 

According to Olivia Fox Cabane, author of The Charisma Myth, there are three components to charisma: Presence, Power, and Warmth. Last week we talked about the nature of real Presence and how to develop this vital quality. Today we’ll tackle that second element: Power.

Charismatic individuals are powerful people. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the leader of the free world or the chairman of a multi-national corporation. In fact, you can find individuals who convey Power in the humblest walks of life. Power, according to Cabane, simply “means being perceived as able to affect the world around us, whether through influence on or authority over others, large amounts of money, expertise, intelligence, sheer physical strength, or high social status.”

Being able to affect the world around us. Powerful people can get things done, or at least they give that impression. Charismatic individuals draw people into their orbit like a magnet, and Power is the crux of that magnetic force. It’s a primal attraction. Back in our caveman times, our survival could depend on being chummy with the big dogs at the top of the social hierarchy – those who could offer protection, food, and women. To better enable us to seek out and latch onto such people, our brains evolved to cue in on body language and status markers that indicate power.

We may have left the savanna thousands of years ago, but people are still incredibly drawn to those who have resources, or simply seem to know how to get them. Our very survival may no longer depend on our connections with such people, but our access to greater personal and professional opportunities can.

It’s extremely important to point out here that each of the three components of charisma must be deftly combined in order to produce personal magnetism. You may be the most affable, attentive person in the room, but without Power, people will at best just see a nice guy, and, at worst, someone who’s needy and desperate; it may seem harsh, but generally the value people place on your Presence and Warmth depends on the amount of power they perceive you to have. Here’s a quick example. If you received a compliment on a job presentation from both a co-worker and the CEO of the company, which compliment would mean more to you? If you’re like most people, it’d be the CEO because he’s got the power.

On the flip side, Power in the absence of Warmth and Presence is a charisma killer. A powerful man who lacks these tempering qualities can be seen as important and impressive, but will come off as aloof, arrogant, and cold.

The currents of Presence, Power, and Warmth must be harmoniously intertwined to produce truly electric charisma.

How to Increase Your Charismatic Power

Man in suit with hands on hips power pose charisma.

Body language plays a big role in conveying Power, such as striking this “Power Pose.” Without Warmth and Presence, a powerful man can seem cold and aloof to others (inset).

Increasing your charismatic Power may seem difficult; it may feel like applying for a job where you need experience to be hired, but to get that experience, you need to have that job first! Remember, however, that charisma is about how other people perceive you, so you don’t actually have to have a million dollars or the Pope on speed dial. Nor do you need to be able to “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of their women” (though those things can certainly help). In order to achieve Conan-esque power, you first simply need to offer the impression that you’ve already got it. Fake it until you make it! As people perceive your charismatic Power and invite you into their circles of influence, you’ll gain in real world power, which will make you feel and demonstrate more charismatic Power – setting off a virtuous cycle that leads to greater and greater success.

Offering an impression of power mainly comes down to enhancing the things humans are wired to home in on when trying to determine someone’s level of it: body language and appearance.

Here’s how to do that, along with a few other proven Power-boosters:

Boost your confidence. Power first begins in the mind. If you feel confident and powerful, others will feel it too. Self-assurance gives you an irresistible aura that draws people in and makes them want to get to know you better. Developing confidence deserves its own post, but for now know that the crux of confidence is mastery. Expertise, regardless of the skill or the area of knowledge, marks you as someone with resources, and a man with enough perseverance to plunge to the very depths of a subject. Attaining mastery over something will also fundamentally change the way you feel about and carry yourself.

Putting the rest of these tips into practice will also help boost your confidence.

Know a little about a lot. In addition to one area of expertise, you should also seek to know as much about as many subjects as possible. Intelligence is one of the key markers of a man who is able to affect the world around us, and the more conversations you can confidently wade into and add onto, the smarter (and more well-liked) you will seem to others. How do you gain a wide breadth of knowledge? Read, read, read. Read every chance you get.

Become physically fit. Your body shape is one of, if not the, first thing people take in when they meet you. A fit, muscular physique sends a signal to the most primal parts of other people’s brains about your strength and ability to dominate and protect. Fitness also signals to other people that you’re disciplined and capable of enduring pain in pursuit of a goal. This is likely why men with an average-to-husky build make more money than both their skinny and obese peers. As reported by The Wall Street Journal, one study found that: “Thin guys earned $8,437 less than average-weight men. But they were consistently rewarded for getting heavier, a trend that tapered off only when their weight hit the obese level. In one study, the highest pay point, on average, was reached for guys who weighed a strapping 207 pounds.”

Dress for power. Clothing is one of our strongest power cues. When we see a man in a military uniform with lots of ribbons on his chest and stars on his shoulders, we automatically think “authority.” But you don’t have to don Dress Blues to garner this instantaneous respect from others. Studies have demonstrated again and again that simply wearing high-status clothing is enough to influence people. For example, in The Charisma Myth, Cabane discusses one experiment that showed that people tended to follow a jaywalker sooner and more frequently if he was wearing a well-tailored suit than if he was wearing more schlumpy-looking clothing.

Besides making others perceive you as more powerful, dressing well can actually make you feel more powerful and confident as well. By feeling more powerful, you act more powerfully, which makes others see you as more powerful. The virtuous charismatic cycle FTW!

Antonio will be going in-depth about the science and psychology of clothing’s effect on power and confidence in a later post, but you can start taking steps today to dress better. You don’t have to buy designer double-breasted pinstripe suits to look more powerful. Just make some small style upgrades that show you have it together. Instead of a t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, don a nice button-down shirt, a pair of khakis, and some leather dress boots. Slip on a sport coat or blazer to broaden and heighten your shoulders and create a more masculine silhouette. Another simple (and inexpensive) way to improve your appearance is to take your clothing to a tailor or seamstress to have it adjusted. You’ll be amazed how much better (and powerful) you’ll look with a dress shirt that isn’t all baggy and poofy or a suit that properly accents your shoulders.

Finally, you may be thinking, “But someone like Mark Zuckerberg wears hoodies and sandals and he’s super powerful.” True, but his success is the exception rather than the rule, in that it was born in a dorm room rather than through having to impress and make connections with other people. A better example would be Steve Jobs. Today we think of him as the quintessential iconoclast, a persona symbolized by his “uniform” of jeans and a black turtleneck. But before Steve Jobs became the Apple wonder-worker of the late 90s, when he was still trying to build his success and convert people to his products and ideas, he dressed in pinstripe suits and even a bow tie. Once you attain the pinnacle of power, you may be able to wear whatever you want. But while you’re still trying to gain power, dress like you’ve already got it.

Be the Big Gorilla. After clothing, body language is the second biggest influencer on other people’s perception of your power. One nonverbal cue that indicates power is the amount of space an individual uses. As you probably intuited, powerful people take up more space than others. They act, as Cabane describes, like “Big Gorillas.”

According to organizational behavioral professor Deborah Gruenfeld, “powerful people sit sideways on chairs, drape their arms over the back, or appropriate two chairs by placing an arm across the back of an adjacent chair. They put their feet on the desk. They sit on the desk.”

To increase the level of power people perceive you to have, look for ways to subtly increase the amount of space you take up. Drape an arm over the back of a chair like Don Draper or when a co-worker comes into your office to chat, instead of sitting behind your desk, casually sit on top of it.

Another tip Cabane suggests to help you harness your inner Big Gorilla is to practice getting people to move aside for you in a crowded environment using only your body language. Imagine you’re actually a Big Gorilla — inflate your chest and stand up straight. Start walking and see if people will move out of your way as you saunter in this powerful stance. Doing this might seem a bit uncomfortable and weird, but it’s a great exercise to help you see the efficacy of body language. If you bump into someone, treat it as an opportunity to convey warmth and kindness by apologizing and making the other person feel comfortable.

Assume Power Poses.  Related to being the Big Gorilla is using “Power Poses.” These are body stances that have been proven to effectively convey power. The most familiar Power Pose is arms akimbo, with the hands resting on the waist. Superheroes are fond of this Power Pose.

Another Power Pose is leaning back in your chair with your hands behind your head like this:

Vintage man businessman leaning back in chair feet on desk.

If you’re at a meeting and you’d like to convey power to those in the room, simply stand up, lean forward, and rest your hands on the table in front of you. Instant authoritah!

A final Power Pose: lifting your arms straight up in the air like you’ve just thrown the game winning touchdown pass. I’m not sure when you could incorporate this pose in your daily life without looking weird, though.

What’s interesting about all these different poses is that not only do they make others perceive you as more powerful, but they also make you feel more powerful (and manly). Studies have shown that by simply standing in a Power Pose for two minutes, testosterone levels increase, while cortisol levels decrease, making you feel more confident and less stressed. When you feel more confident, you act more powerful. Another charismatic virtuous circle! They’re everywhere!

This TED talk by Harvard professor Amy Cuddy does a great job explaining the efficacy of Power Poses:

Take control of your environment. We feel most self-assured, at ease, and powerful when we’re familiar with our surroundings. Familiarity gives us a sense of control, which makes us feel confident. This is why organizations sometimes fight over the location of negotiations before they even start negotiating. Each side wants that home-field advantage.

But how can you be familiar with a room if it’s your first time entering it? Author and magician Steve Cohen suggests doing small things to instantly take control of your surroundings. For example, when you sit down at a table in a restaurant, rearrange things on the table. Move a saltshaker or your water glass. It sounds silly, but by doing this you tell your subconscious that you have control (even if it’s nominal) of your surroundings, which in turn makes you more confident and magnetic. Look for small but polite ways in which you can take control of your surroundings in your everyday activities. You might be amazed by the results.

Speak less and slowly. Powerful people don’t just take up space physically; they also take up space in conversation. Paradoxically, this doesn’t mean you should be hogging the speaking time. Powerful people actually tend to speak less than low-status individuals. By making their words scarce, powerful people increase the value of their communication. When they do speak, people listen. Harness your inner Spartan by being a bit less chatty and a bit more laconic with your speech.

Powerful people also take up space in the conversation with silence. Unlike most folks, powerful people aren’t afraid of “awkward” silence. In fact, they relish it. They understand that people will nervously try to fill the silent gaps. It’s usually during these bouts of anxious chatter that the other man gives up some strategic advantage or useful information. This is why interrogators, job interviewers, and negotiators often resort to the silent treatment to suss out the other person’s vulnerabilities.

Another way to take up space in the conversation is to speak slowly. Speaking fast conveys nervousness and anxiety. Speaking slowly conveys the intelligence, thoughtfulness, and calmness that powerful people embody. Legendary actor Michael Caine summed it up nicely when he said: “the basic rule of human nature is that powerful people speak slowly and subservient people quickly – because if they don’t speak fast nobody will listen to them.” You’d be surprised how fast you talk. Summon your inner Sam Elliott and make an effort to slow it down. It may seem like you’re speaking… way… too… slowly at first, but trust me, you’ll sound completely normal, and even a bit regal.

Boost your poise. Powerful people are composed people. They have poise, or a certain grace and stillness about them. They don’t excessively nod (a sign of submissiveness), they don’t fidget (a sign of nervousness ), and they don’t rely on verbal fillers like um and uh. In your next encounter with someone, act natural but focus on being as still as possible. Nod every now and then to indicate you’re listening, but don’t turn into a bobblehead. Keep your hands still and don’t tap your feet. Read our article on how to eliminate ums and uhs.

Finding Your Inner Gorilla

I imagine that there’s a good number of you who are thinking, “I don’t know about this. It makes me feel a little uncomfortable. I enjoyed the article on Presence more.” I bet you did. Paying attention to people is “nice” and we’re all conditioned and raised to be nice to others. We’re not taught how to be assertive and act powerful. In fact, we’re often made to apologize and feel bad for wanting to.

Just remember that being powerful doesn’t mean being a jerk – you’ll also need to cultivate your Presence and Warmth in order to be truly magnetic. But just being nice is not the same thing as being charismatic; you might be likeable but not fascinating, not magnetic, not someone people are drawn to as soon as you walk into the room. So work on developing your Power, even if it doesn’t come naturally to you at first. With time and practice, I promise it will.

Listen to my podcast with Olivia Fox Cabane about charisma:

Read the Entire Series

The 3 Elements of Charisma: Presence
The 3 Elements of Charisma: Warmth
A Case Study in Charisma From Tender Is the Night
Podcast: The Charisma Myth With Olivia Fox

Related Posts