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Charisma vs. Power: The Difference and the Side Effects

How our communication shapes our sense of self


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Rakia Ben Sassi

3 years ago | 9 min read

Story 1

Legend has it that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and his political rival William Gladstone had a date with the same woman on different nights.

When asked her impression of the two men, she said, “When I left the dining room after sitting next to Mr. Gladstone, I thought he was the cleverest man in England. But after sitting next to Mr. Disraeli, I thought I was the cleverest woman in England.”

Story 2

The South Korean drama movie “Seducing Mr. Perfect”, tells the story of a woman (Ms. June) who believes in true love but men always break up with her. As she was complaining: “I have been dumped three times now”, her boss Robin Heiden answered: “Because you don’t know the rules.

The rules of the game! It’s a game that requires even greater precision and planning. A game of power and manipulations of emotions to control the mind… That’s the game. It’s a game where the one who displays affection first, gives up total control and goes around like a dog on a collar.”

Robin has very clear ideas about a relationship and love: for him, true love exists only in a hypothetical world and doesn’t map to the real world. Both relationships and love are a game of power and manipulation of emotions.

A game of power — from Seducing Mr. Perfect

After seeking advice from him, as she doesn’t want to get dumped again, she started treating men like Robin treats women. But she realizes that she prefers her older behavior, even if that means that she gets dumped again. She doesn’t see love as a game of power and never will.

Story 3

By the German writer Heinz Körner (translated by author)

Once upon a time, there was a gardener who took his wife‘s hand one day and said: “Come on wife, we’ll plant a tree.” The woman replied: “If you want to, my dear man, let’s plant a tree.”

They went into the garden and planted a tree. It was not long before the tree could be seen sprouting gently out of the ground. It saw the sun for the first time. It felt the warmth of their rays on its leaves and greeted it. It found it beautiful to be in this world and grow.

“Look,” said the gardener to his wife, “is it not cute, our tree?” and his wife answered: “Yes, my dear man, as you said: a beautiful tree!”.

The tree began to grow taller and higher and stretched out towards the sun. It felt the wind and felt the rain, enjoyed the warm and firm earth around its roots, and was happy.

And every time the gardener and his wife looked after it and called it “a beautiful tree”, it felt well because there was someone who liked it and took care of it. It was loved and not alone in the world.

So it grew contentedly and wanted nothing more than to live and grow, to feel the wind and the rain, to feel the earth and the sun, and to be loved and to love others.

One day the tree realized that it was nice to grow a little to the left because from there the sun shone more on its leaves. So now it grew a little to the left. “Look,” said the gardener to his wife, “our tree is crooked.

Since when can trees grow crooked? and in our garden? God did not create the trees to grow crooked! “His wife agreed, of course. “You are a clever and God-fearing woman,” said the gardener. “So give me our scissors, because we want to cut our tree straight.”

The tree cried. The people who had loved it so much, whom it trusted, cut off its branches closest to the sun. It could not speak and therefore could not ask why. It could not understand.

But they said that they loved it and meant well with it. And they said that a tree had to grow and God does not like it when it grows crooked. It no longer grew up against the sun.

“Is it not good, our tree?” Asked the gardener his wife. “Sure, dear man,” she replied, “You are right as always.

Our tree is a good one.“ The tree began to understand. If it did what was fun and enjoyable for it, then it was a bad tree. It was only nice and good at doing what the gardener and his wife expected it to do.

So now, it was careful not to grow more crooked. “Look at that,” the gardener said one day to his wife, “Our tree is growing outrageously fast. Is this allowed for a tree?“ His wife replied,” No, dear man.

God wants trees to grow slowly and quietly. And our neighbor thinks that trees need to be modest and grow slowly too.“

The gardener praised his wife and said that she understands something about trees.

Then he sent her to get the scissors to cut the branches of the tree.

For a long time, the tree cried this night. Why did they cut off the branches that the gardener and his wife did not like? And who was this God who was supposedly against anything fun? “Look, woman,” said the gardener, “We can be proud of our tree now.”

Photo by Alex Holyoake on Unsplash

The tree became defiant. Well, if not in the height, then just in the width.

So it grew wider now. “That’s unbelievable!” The gardener shook his scissors indignantly and said to his wife, “Can you imagine that our tree just grows wide. That seems to be fun for it.

We can not tolerate anything like that!“ His wife agreed: ” We can not allow that. Then we just have to cut it again.“ The tree could not cry anymore, it had no more tears. After all, it seemed to please the gardener and his wife now.

Even though everything was no longer pleasurable. That’s how the tree thought.

Many years later, as the tree became a right and decent tree and the gardener and his wife were proud of it, a little girl has seen it with her father. The little girl stopped in front of it and asked:

  • “Dad, do you not think the tree looks a bit sad?”
  • “I don’t know,” said the father. “When I was as young as you, I could see if a tree is happy or sad. But today I don’t see it anymore.“ The tree looks sad.
  • The little girl looked at the tree sympathetically: “Nobody loves it. It looks so tidy, I think it wanted to grow very differently but was not allowed to. And that’s why it’s sad now.”
  • “Maybe, but who can grow as he likes?“ the father answered pensively.
  • “Why not?” the girl asked. “If someone really loves the tree, he will let it grow as it likes. It does not harm anyone.“
  • Amazed and scared, the father looked at his child. Then he said: “You know, no one is allowed to grow as he likes because otherwise other people would realize that they didn’t grow as they wanted.”
  • “I do not understand, daddy!”
  • “Child, you can not understand that yet. You too can not grow as you like.“
  • ”But why not, dad? You love me, and mom loves me too, right?“
  • The father looked at her thoughtfully for a while. “Yes,” he said then, “sure we love you.”

They walked on slowly, and the little girl thought for a long time about this conversation and the sad tree. The tree was listening attentively to the conversation, and it thought for a long time as well. Then, it understood and it began to cry unrestrainedly.

A Thought

With each dinner, the woman in our first story has found herself grappling with a new nuance, a different moment, and a different game. A game of communication.

The question of “how we communicate?” has been asked many times, and it will likely continue to be asked until the day it can no longer be asked. The question is complex because it assumes interactions with other agents that have both conflicting and complementary goals to us.

According to Olivia Box — the author of the book “The charisma myth”, the charismatic person in the first story, was Mr. Disraeli. The one with power, warmth, and presence.

Those three components of charisma (according to “The charisma myth”), fulfilled and played by Mr. Disraeli, have made the woman feel that she is the cleverest woman in England.

People are more likely to be drawn to us and act admirably when they like how they feel and act when they are around us.

This is interesting, but how about Mr. Gladstone? What kind of person could he be? What kind of person can make you feel and think that he is a clever and amazing one but at the same time you don’t get that feeling about yourself when you are with him?

One obvious answer is in the second story, in Robin’s advice to Ms. June: he is a person who understands and masters the game of “power and emotions manipulation”.

Such a person with a lack of empathy makes others don’t sense his intentions and his genuine concern for their circumstances. He is not a charismatic person but a powerful one.
The distinction between power and charisma gives us a place to start. This person shows power, but power isn’t always what is important, nor is it what adds true meaning to our togetherness. Warmth — and may be Presence too — was the bare minus in the dinner with Mr. Gladstone.

Slowly but surely such smart guy could be in the business of manipulating his interlocutors and telling them that he is the big one and they are the small ones, and so they will believe, look and feel if they don’t understand the game.

It would be fair to say that dealing with a such person could be a chance to learn new skills from him, but at the same time, he can make you play the role of the tree in the third story.

When you are in a such relationship and you are lacking in self-confidence, your self worth will be down. You’re feeling insecure and have a fear of inferiority.

You feel like you’re not enough. You could do or say something that’s either seemingly insane or unattractive. Then you feel unworthy again, and so continues a cycle of toxicity where you find yourself stunted in your ability to articulate your thoughts and feelings.

A charismatic person creates a space that reshapes itself as the two parties co-evolve. He gives his communicator the chance to feel that he too is a powerful one. Then he switches roles in a such way that both communicators feel like they are “leader and child switching roles” instead of “a big-one and a small-one with no role switching”. In such a communication game:

  • The leader is enjoying guiding the child, enjoying seeing him growing up, and take the role of the leader too.
  • The child is enjoying feeling the warmth and the encouragement of his leader. He is enjoying feeling secure and having self-confidence and good self-esteem.

The person who you are and the kind of people around you will contribute to which player and in which game you will find yourself. If you don’t have a deep understanding of those 2 factors, then maybe identifying in which game you find yourself embroiled in, will guide you the understand the inner- and the outer world.

Let’s come back to Heinz Körner’s story now (story number 3) and end up our thought with a poem written by the Tree as it got back from dinner with Mr. Charismatic.

The poem, called “The traveler stuck in time”, describes the tree’s feeling after years of manipulation by the gardener. It was an emotionally abusive experience that inflicts wounds that will take time to heal.

The Tree was getting tired of all the nonsense, but at the same time, the dinner was an opportunity to realize how amazing its life could be.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

The traveler stuck in time

I am the ship in the sea looking for its port
I am the erupted volcano after a long sleep
I am the warrior taking away the remnant thorns implanted in his body
I am the wounded crying for cure and remedy
I am the refugee waiting for safety
I am the flower blooming and breathing the rays of light
I am the butterfly coming out of the cocoon
I am the bird feeling his wings and seeing himself flying in the sky
I am the child seeking a guardian
I am the tears rolling down a smiley face
I am the human whose identity has been abused
I am a traveler stuck in time
I am the pen drawing the voices of a revolution

This article was originally published by Rakia ben sassi on medium.

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Rakia Ben Sassi

A Senior Software Engineer passionate about psychology and creativity and write about technical and human oriented issues.


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