Charisma is like porn: We're not sure what it is, exactly, but we know it when we see it. In fact, charisma is the most elusive of all personality traits, not just because it's tough to define, but because so few truly possess it. And like other scarce commodities—Bullwinkle Pez dispensers, triple-A bond ratings, virginity—charisma is highly prized by those in whom it's lacking.
Charisma is such an ineffable quality that we tend to describe charismatic people in abstract, magical terms: Mesmerizing. Bewitching. Electrifying. They seem to be lit from within by a flame so intense, their mere presence is said to suck the oxygen out of the room. These incandescent personalities are the "it" girls, the leading men, the iconic heroes and villains who have shaped world history.
Today’s charismatics, as we’ll call them, still illuminate the screen and dominate the halls of power. Their disproportionate influence on others often determines which paintings are exhibited and which medical research proposals are funded. It may even determine which golf clubs you buy or which gadget you carry in your pocket or wear on your forehead. Love 'em or hate 'em, we find charismatic people inexplicably fascinating.
The topic of charisma never fails to fascinate. If you doubt this, bring it up at your next cocktail party, and see if folks aren’t itching to tell you who they think is charismatic (or not) and why. (Unfortunately, this conversational gambit inevitably leads to some mention of Hitler, but you can deflect everyone’s attention by throwing out some red meat—any mention of Ann Coulter, for instance, will do the trick.)
Charisma is the most important, least scrutinized phenomenon to have shaped history. Its footprint is everywhere. By definition, people with charismatic personalities attract followers. The power to hold sway over others can be used for good or for ill. Some become the Oprahs, the Mother Teresas, the Nelson Mandelas and Harvey Milks of the world. Others become the Kim Jong-ils, the Vladimir Putins, the Bernie Madoffs, the Jim Joneses.
Why have we been content to accept that charisma is an indefinable attribute? From the most eminent scholar to the lowliest celebrity blogger, we seem uneasy trying to pin down a more precise definition. What is charisma? Who has it, and why does it fascinate us? How does it affect our daily lives, and how has it shaped world events? What are scientists are learning about charisma, and how might it help us formulate a more precise and useful definition of the trait? Call it stardust if you like, but let's run a battery of tests to find out what the stuff's really made of.