How to be a Charismatic Chairperson – David Price

In every workplace, on virtually any day, there will be one, six, ten, a hundred meetings and every one will be “led” by someone. Whether that person sees themselves as “chairing” the meeting or not, the other people do. And so every day throughout the world there are tens of thousands of people chairing meetings – it is perhaps the most common universal activity which occurs in workplaces in every part of the globe every working day.

Even though people are chairing meetings with such frequency, and even though it is such a common task or role, only a tiny fraction of those people have had any training or coaching in the skill of chairing a meeting. Most people when asked, respond that they learned their skills (if they recognise that there are skills) from watching other people chair meetings. The obvious problem is that some learn good skills and others pick up techniques which do not work as well, or sometimes actually become counter-productive for the meeting, the people attending, the person chairing themselves, or a combination of all three.

There are some basic skills in chairing meetings but the acquisition of those skills is not the sole purpose of this chapter. Rather, a higher level of understanding is being targeted here – the concept of the charismatic chairperson.

Charisma is an elusive quality. Most people would privately like to have it among their qualities. Most people know a charismatic leader and yet few people can define charisma and less, know how to develop it. Charismatic leaders are not common and it stands to reason therefore, that charismatic chairmanship is rare also. Those who possess the elusive quality, however, have a source of great power to a) get things done, b) to harness the individual and collective wisdom, knowledge and skill of other people and c) turn synergy into a tangible, real and relevant concept.

If you walk into almost any organisation anywhere in the world where meetings are held and ask the people who attend those meetings, the opinion they hold on the quality of the chairing of the meetings, then the response will be almost universal – poor! Most people have a low opinion of the chairing skills of the people who preside over the meetings they attend.

This is surprising in some ways and obvious in others. The majority of people in leadership positions have received training in skills such as: speaking, time management and prioritizing, financial matters and the like, but training in chairing meetings seems to be something people acquire by osmosis. If few have been trained to run meetings, none have received training in how to charismatic!

There are few people who have charisma when they chair meetings and we do not yet see large numbers of charismatic leaders in the workplace or people who could be described as charismatic when they chair meetings. Less senior people frequently chair meetings in the same way as their “boss” in order to gain acceptance or approval. A charismatic person has no need to do this – he or she will develop a style which is uniquely theirs and assert that style whenever they are in a leadership or chairing position.

They gain from this, enormous respect and frequently envy from those who would like to be as bold. The irony is that more senior people will usually look for these qualities and admire them. While I am certain there are still many “bosses” who want, to use an old fashioned term, “yes men”, they are no longer in the majority and modern organisations want the talents and skills of their leaders and potential leaders to shine and blossom.

Chairing meetings is a crucial skill for any leader. Meetings are also the forum at which leaders and potential leaders are often judged or assessed, whether the judgement is appropriate or not, accurate or not – it occurs. Developing the skill to be a charismatic chairperson is one of the most beneficial (and rewarding) attributes a person can acquire. The charismatic chairperson will have, as the saying goes, the world as his or her oyster.

At one time or another, every leader will chair a meeting. Most will chair many meetings, often several each day. The success of any meeting is not determined solely by the person in the chair, but he or she has a significant role to play and most people would agree is the key player.

If it is possible to encapsulate the three crucial attributes of a charismatic and successful chairperson, they are – Fairness, Firmness, and Focus.

The thousands of people we have asked, respond that the common attribute lacking in the people who chair the meetings they attend is “focus”. This followed very closely by “firmness”. People who lack “fairness” are rare, thankfully, for their meetings are disastrous for the participants but usually judged by themselves as being highly successful – but for whom?

The Meeting Game

It is very useful to look at meetings as a game. Without trivializing the analogy we have a firm basis on which to build some vital understandings.

Any game, chess, football or chairing a meeting requires two things – rules and strategy. The player who knows the rules, but has limited understanding of strategy will rarely win. On the other hand, the player who has both an understanding of the rules as well as a keen sense of strategy, is more often the person who wins or in meetings, achieves the desired outcome.

A charismatic and successful leader of meetings is fully conversant with the rules but also understands strategy. The charismatic chair not only understands strategies which will work best for themselves and the meeting, but also is aware of the strategies used by others – both positive and negative.

Here lies the first problem. Most meetings do not have a written set of rules or guidelines. Without such a document, like any game, the result is confusion or anarchy at worst, and ineffectiveness at best. Before embarking on the path towards effective chairmanship, it is crucial to ensure that everyone has an understanding of the guidelines, and that everyone has the same understanding.

Action Step One

Draw up a set of guidelines which can be used in the meetings you chair. A sample set of Guidelines for Meetings appears below.

Charismatic leaders are consistent. They do not alter the rules half way through a game or a meeting. They have no difficulty in either having a set of rules or abiding by them. A charismatic leader will also want to have them documented for it gives a basis of understanding which can be called upon when a meeting goes off track for any reason. It is very difficult to solve a problem in a way which satisfies everyone when the problem arises. However, if the method of resolving problems is documented before they arise, then resolution can be quick and painless.

The rules are not those of the chairperson. They are drawn up and agreed to by the group with the input of the chairperson, and highly likely, with a very strong input. The wise chairperson understands fully that a set of rules drawn up and agreed to by the group has significantly more effect than one imposed by one person, but especially by the person in the chair.

Use this set of guidelines as a basis and starting point to draw up your own.

Guidelines for Meetings (Sample)

  • A written agenda will be issued to all meeting participants at least 24 hours prior to any meeting
  • Every person giving a report will provide a maximum of one A4 page summary which will be included in the minutes.
  • Verbal (ad lib) reports without a written summary will not be accepted
  • The minutes will record issues, decisions and action only
  • Except in special circumstances, discussion and individual people’s comments will not be recorded in the minutes
  • Decisions will be made by consensus. Consensus is defined as “a minimum of 80% of participants agree and the remainder can live with the decision”. If consensus cannot be reached, then decisions will be made by majority provided that a majority of 80% is required
  • Every person will be treated equally.
  • No topic which is not on the agenda will be addressed.
  • All items to be addressed must be given to the minute taker by the agreed cut-off time for agenda items
  • Late or urgent items will only be addressed if 80% of the meeting participants agree to their inclusion

Take Stock of your Skills

Every leader brings to a meeting skills, experience, knowledge, wisdom, a level of awareness and personal qualities of integrity, patience, confidence, and assertiveness. Every sportsperson, great or aspiring, knows exactly where their strengths lie and far more importantly, where they have a need to improve or build. They spend more time working on the areas of deficiency rather than the areas of strength. Leaders in meetings need to follow this example.

Few leaders, in their role of chairing meetings, take stock. Few seek candid feedback from colleagues about how they could improve. Many may be fearful of the response while others may believe that such action would send a signal of weakness. In fact the reverse is the case. The leader who seeks feedback (and acts on it) gains enormous respect. From this respect they will derive loyalty and commitment in amounts and levels which other leaders only dream about and often cannot comprehend.

Charismatic leaders seek feedback, listen and act on it. There is always room for improvement and polishing.

Some key questions which a strong and confident leader, who is genuinely interested in improving their performance can ask include:

  • Is my style more autocratic or democratic?
  • Do I give the impression that I am really interested in what people at the meeting think and believe?
  • Do I speak more or listen more?
  • Do people feel that the meetings I chair are effective and worthwhile?
  • If I were to make one improvement in the way I chair meetings, what would it be?
  • Do I give the impression that I have already made my decision before the meeting?
  • If The meetings I chair were voluntary, would you attend?

It takes courage and confidence to ask these questions. A rule of thumb is this – the feedback you don’t like is the feedback you need. It takes honesty too. No matter what the answers to the questions, they are correct in the perception of the person giving the answer. It is a weaker person who, having received feedback they dislike, justifies to themselves or others why the person giving it was mistaken. Self justification is the killer of self improvement!

Some people seek the advice of an outside expert to observe their meeting practices and provide objective feedback as a basis for improving their skills. (This author offers this professional service)

Action Step Two

Take honest stock of your current skill level in chairing meetings. Seek feedback and take steps to remedy areas which need improvement. (Think of it as seeking a pro’s advice on your golf swing) Maybe consider employing a coach.

Be brutally honest with yourself about your personal agenda

This one is tricky and requires absolute personal honesty. There are two major styles of leadership – service leadership and power leadership. This is not the place to go into detail about the two styles other than how they apply to people who chair meetings.

The following table gives the comparison of the two styles as they apply to chairing meetings.

  • Attribute
  • The Service Chairperson
  • The Power Chairperson
  • The perception of need
  • To get a decision which delivers the greatest good to the greatest number
  • To get a decision which delivers what they want
  • Management style
  • Democratic
  • Autocratic

The most commonly used pronoun

  • We
  • I
  • Style of communication
  • Asks
  • Tells
  • Type of communication
  • Listens
  • Talks
  • Theme song
  • “We are the Champions”
  • “My Way”

Attendance levels if not compulsory

  • Many people attend their meetings
  • Few people attend

Attitude to recognition

  • Does not seek it but receives it. Then redirects it or shares it with others.
  • Seeks it. Often does not receive it. Often does not share it.

Measure of success

  • Having the maximum enrollment, subscription or commitment to the group decision and/or process.
  • Getting people to agree with them

Integrity

  • Nearly always judged by others as having high integrity
  • Often judged by others as having low integrity

Morale

  • Builds high morale among the people they work with
  • Morale is often very low

Results achieved

  • High results are achieved – people do things because they feel involved.
  • Sometimes few results are achieved and those that are, are nearly always driven by the energy of the chairperson. Often results occur from fear of reprisals.

Strategies others use to deal with this type of chairperson

  • People communicate freely and openly and say what they really think. This results in a highly productive team.
  • People either do not communicate at all, or say what they know the chairperson wants to hear, then they either do nothing, or as little as possible.

Level of respect

  • Usually in high respect
  • Often held in high respect but frequently out of the power they are perceived to wield.
  • Rarely respected as a person, more often respected in their role or job.

Stress levels

  • Usually not stressed
  • Often stressed
  • Propensity to be or become a workaholic
  • Usually will not be or become a workaholic
  • Frequently will be a workaholic and expect everyone else to work the same hours. Will often see people who do not work like them as not committed and possibly as being weak.

Use/understanding of synergy

  • Fully understands synergy and knows how to harness collective wisdom, knowledge, skill and awareness.
  • Frequently views synergy cynically as a vague concept which has little to do with the real world. Therefore, has little understanding of how to fully harness other people.

Power source

  • Harnesses and utilises the collective energy of the group. People are willing to contribute energy for the good of the group.
  • Often unaware that there is energy available to be harnessed and frequently unable to do it. Therefore, provides most of the energy themselves and the group is usually quite happy that this happens.

This table is of course general and there will be exceptions. There is, however, an obvious trend. Service people are focused on others and their needs, power people are focused on their own needs.

The great irony is that service people do not seek respect or recognition, yet receive it, while power people do seek these things, and often receive the reverse. The sad reality is that power people rarely recognize this.

When it comes to charisma there is another surprise. It would be logical to conclude and predict that only service people would manage to achieve that elusive quality of charisma. This appears not be the case. Power people can also have charisma. Charisma is not the quality that will make a good leader in meetings. The results of the meeting and the outcomes that are generated will very much be a factor of a mix between the skills of the person in the chair and their personal style.

Power people can have charisma, but that does not mean that people will follow them for the right reasons. History has shown us some famous and infamous examples of people who appeared to have great charisma. People followed yes, but often through fear. History also shows though, that at the end of the so-called charismatic leader’s reign, people often revert to their old ways – little long term change occurs in people’s behaviour and the leader themselves is not well regarded.

While it would be naive to suggest that no modern leaders use fear in their strategic repertoire, it would be fair to say that they would not be the majority. Some people would argue that a situation where people follow through fear is false charisma.

Service leaders who are charismatic certainly do not use fear. They tend to develop a feeling of such respect, that people follow simply because they want to! When chairing meetings, they tend to draw out the knowledge , experience and particularly the wisdom of other people and above all, treat every person equally. This does not mean they are not firm. Indeed people know exactly where they stand with service leaders and because of this they tend to command more respect.

The great irony is that service leaders do not demand respect, but they receive it. Their “power” counterparts do demand respect, and for the very reason that they “demand” it, do not receive it.

The service/power leadership dichotomy could be discussed at much greater length but the essence of its impact on chairing meetings can be simply put this way. People who chair meetings from a service perspective will generate much more focused activity after the meeting and actions will be completed above and beyond “the call of duty” because people want to. People who chair meetings from a power perspective will usually get agreement at the meeting but very little action will occur later, and the action which does occur will be done because people feel they must. The obvious result is poorer quality.

Cut down your speaking and increase your listening

How can you apply all of this to your own skills in leading people in meetings? Start young. Perhaps one of the greatest skills a person embarking on a career in management and therefore leadership, will be the skill to chair a meeting well. But can an old dog learn new tricks? I suggest that the answer is a resounding yes. Start by reducing your speaking and increasing your listening.

It will need a willingness to evaluate and change but it can be done. It may also require a conscious move from “power” to a “service” style. The single most important change to make to become an effective leader in meetings is to become a listener, and not be the talker.

Action Step Three

Monitor the amount you speak and listen in meetings. Ensure that you listen far more than you speak. The people who chair meetings exceptionally, listen more than they speak. The people who chair poorly, comment after every person has spoken.

It is a surprising but true phenomenon that the more a chairperson says, the less effective he or she is. Conversely, the less said (within reason – there must be a contribution), the more effective.

Work on asking questions such as these. How would that work? What do others think of that idea? By asking questions, a good leader gets a much more effective idea of where his or her people are at and can therefore work with a strong knowledge and understanding base.

By doing more listening and less talking, the cynical person may conclude that such a chairperson would be weak and would be demonstrating the reverse of strong and decisive leadership. Nothing could be further from the truth. A great irony appears here. By doing more listening, this leader will gain a far deeper understanding of how others think and behave and therefore be much more skillful in harnessing their individual and group strengths. The ability to do this in fact gives them exactly what they do not seek – power. The trick is that they do not use it for personal good, but the good of the group.

So the service chairperson does not seek power, yet receives it. The power chairperson seeks and wants power, but ultimately does not receive it.

Give your opinion last

A common question people ask in relation to becoming a charismatic chairperson is what if the leader of the meeting has more knowledge or knows what needs to be done? How can they then sit back and listen and not speak? No problem. An effective chairperson will set the ground rules for the meeting, give the background, and then ask careful questions to see where the thinking of the group and the individuals within it sit. The chairperson’s opinion is given last. So they may speak for 5 or perhaps 10 minutes to provide background information but then leave the meeting with one two or more specific focused questions which the meetings needs to address.

Action Step Four

Give your opinion or view last, not first. Wait until everyone has given their opinion before giving your own – if you need to at all.

This is a really basic concept but one which has as its foundation a simple principle. The principle is that in any group of people meeting together for some common purpose, the likelihood of two or more of them having the same view or opinion is very high. If one of these people is the meeting leader, then logically, on any issue, there is likely to be a person in the group who shares the same opinion.

A wise leader therefore, will wait until the people in the group have expressed their views or opinions, thereby being able to see if his or her personal view is shared by one or more other people. If it is, then the view is contributed by that person, leaving the leader both being seen to be, and actually being, totally impartial.

The strategy though, is not to give your opinion. By giving your opinion, you will greatly reduce the input from others. Human nature is such that once the leader has given an opinion, most people will either go along with it or stay silent, even if they have reservations. The charismatic chairperson understands this and so they seek opinions from others first.

When we have researched groups regarding the vocabulary used by leaders, the results are universal. When a new issue (or any issue) is raised, the first words a power chairperson says are “I think we should”. The first words a service person says are “What do you think?”.

So where does charisma fit into this concept of speaking last? We have already illustrated that the charismatic person can be either service or power based. The ability to harness the collective energy is where the difference lies. The true charismatic person, the one whom people admire and respect for who they are and what they stand for, comes to the fore in this speak last principle.

With total self-confidence, the service charismatic leader gathers followers whose loyalty grows by the day because they are genuinely interested in the opinions of others, not imposing their views on others. This is so clearly demonstrated to the participants in the meeting by the fact that the chair does not give their opinion, but asks for the participants’ views.

Summary Focus Points

Charisma is an elusive quality but for those who do not have it naturally (and some do) it can be achieved if people work hard at changing their behaviour when they chair meetings.

Work first on shifting focus from the chair to the participants in the meeting. It is these people who “do most of the work” and so they should have the greatest contribution in determining what the work should be or how it can best be done.

Consciously look for the skills, knowledge and wisdom of the people in a meeting. Like most things, you will see what you are looking for. Use careful questions to draw people out and contribute.

Be firm and consistent so that people know exactly where they stand. Charismatic people are never inconsistent, but neither are they vague. They are very good decision makers – decisions are made quickly and decisively once the opinions and facts are gathered.

Focus on the outcomes of the meeting and the action that must be taken. Be clear about who must do what and by when. Document it all and make sure everyone receives a copy.

Above all else, develop your own style. Stamp your charismatic mark on the meetings you chair and the results will be remarkable!

David Julian Price works with organisations and individuals to improve the productivity, processes and results of meetings, and also to improve skills in chairing meetings. He runs group sessions or individual coaching throughout Australia and internationally.

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