The Rise of the Charismartist


I told my colleagues that I didn’t want to go to another lunch meeting to get charismaed by another would-be Steve Jobs. Perhaps I’m getting old and grumpy, but the executive charisma shtick that has been cascading down upon us since Jobs first loped onto a stage wearing a headset and a black turtleneck has become my least favorite cliché. 

When I was relieved of my pending charisma ordeal, my colleagues asked me what they should look out for when evaluating whether to take this hot dog on as a client. I answered, “The more these guys talk about their VISION and PASSION, the less of a product they have.”

It’s a constant source of wonder to me how far people can skate on a highly-constructed personality. I call them charismartists. Theranos’ Elizabeth Holmes and WeWork’s Adam Neumann come to mind. They came of age during an age of low interest rates and high euphoria when it wasn’t too hard to get venture capitalists with fantasies of Gulfstream jets to throw money at them.

My new favorite charismartists to emerge are the self-styled “royal experts” who’ve been spreading like fungus since Queen Elizabeth died. What kind of training must a royal expert receive? What are their qualifications? What differentiates a royal expert from a mere “royal watcher?”

My guess is that the qualifications are the same as other TV pundits: Flash some personality along with a tidbit of insight that can never be confirmed. How could anybody possibly know what King Charles said to Prince Harry in a stairwell in Scotland? It doesn’t matter: All you have to do is say it on TV with a knowingly cocked eyebrow, and you, my friend, are a royal expert. (Note: The qualifications to be a royal expert are similar to those to be a crisis manager —declare yourself one with a bit of elan.)

One of the things I perversely enjoy most about executive charismartists is the cult of personality that pops up around them, like acne. They’ve got cool backstories, such as the guy I met who claimed to have cured his terminal illness via a dramatic athletic feat. They have cultivated physical features such as Holmes’ fake baritone or Neumann’s groovy long hair or a disorder that can’t be definitively disproven from a distance. I’ve noticed more high-profile types claiming to have Asperger’s, a very real syndrome, ever since Elon Musk said he has it, which he likely does. Oh, and they like prattling on about how much they’ve learned from failure, presumably because Jobs failed and came roaring back.

Toadies enjoy briefing others on the principal’s quirks, likes and dislikes. I was once asked to remove my shoes before entering one mogul’s lair because he had an aversion to footwear (Oh, how unique and eccentric!)

To be sure, lots of geniuses have a good line of bullshit. Dylan. Jobs. Musk. But look what they did. They had a lot more than shtick. With charismartists, it’s all shtick.

When talking about a challenge facing their company, I often hear a charismartist claim, “This isn’t about publicity for me” (It’s about publicity for them); “I could care less what people think of me” (They only think about what people think of them); and “I don’t pay attention to those Forbes 400 lists” (It’s memorized).

The lifeblood of a charismartist’s existence is publicity, and the answer to every obstacle is more publicity. This can become a problem when, as has happened to me, a client facing indictment believes he can slither his way out of a 60 Minutes investigation by charming the interviewer, who will be blown away by being in his presence. The client in question who sat for the interview ended up in prison, as did his legal counsel.

Then there are the capitalist evangelists who don’t understand that once lunch meeting braggadocio enters the realm of a publicly traded security, there are legal implications to permitting one’s proselytism to awaken the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Charismartists sometimes push sexual boundaries because they know what other sybarites got away with and think they can, too. They also don’t pay their bills because their compensation to others is the experience of getting to tell others you know them.

Among my favorite breed of charismartist are the exuberant, bikini-clad fifty-seven-year-old fitness grandmothers, often from Australia for some reason, who are hawking you-can-eat-more-and-lose-weight diets without disclosing that they are a) genetic mutants, b) starving themselves, and c) spending every waking hour of their lives training.

As I have watched in awe Donald Trump’s seventy-six-year reign of getting away with absolutely everything, I’ve thought, “What’s the big deal — why didn’t I try to charisma my way through existence? Why be so darned earnest? Why not write the book entitled “Five Awesome Ways to Resolve Any Corporate Crisis in Six Minutes?”

Two answers. First, my life experience has not taught me that I can get away with anything, let alone everything. While Trump was absolutely correct that he could shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue and retain his supporters, I, on the other hand, am still in the doghouse for forgetting to take the trash out once in 1994.

My second reason for eschewing the charisma racket is a congenital sense of shame. While we’re not supposed to care what people think of us, I admit to wanting the respect of the cohort of people who inhabit my little world. If I ever spoke to them about my vision and passion, not only would they think I was an asshat, I would see myself as one.

“So, how was the lunch?” I asked my colleagues when they returned from the aforementioned lunch meeting with Steve Jobs on the twenty-seventh carbon. “You nailed it,” one said. “Vision and passion, all the way.”

The engagement with Little Jobs didn’t happen. And he still doesn’t have a product. But I bet he’s got an accent now. Or something.

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