It’s hard to quantify charisma, but by any measure Joel Osteen has some pretty impressive stats. Every week, the man some call “The Smiling Preacher,” draws an estimated 43,500 individuals to his Lakewood Church, which he moved into a former professional basketball stadium just off Houston’s Highway 59 in 2005. Osteen’s weekly sermons are beamed across seven networks in the United States and, by some estimates, reach 95 percent of the nation’s households and more than 150 countries.
The 53-year-old pastor, with his boyish good looks, ubiquitous incisors, and his impeccably coiffed mane of wavy, brown locks, oversees a budget estimated at upward of $70 million. He has penned no less than seven best sellers (most derived from his sermons), has amassed a net worth estimated at $40 million, with book sales and related revenue reportedly exceeding $55 million, and lives in a 17,000-square foot, $10.5 million mansion. All of it is built upon the personality—the words, the wisdom, and in no small part the charisma—of the man the congregants of the nation’s largest charismatic church refer to, simply, as “Pastor Joel.”
So, what is it that makes Osteen different from the rest of us? What is the source of his magical magnetism?
Many—including Osteen himself—might attribute his gifts to the favor of a higher power. After all, charisma, wrote the early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber, who gave the word its most widely used modern definition, is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”
But there’s a small but growing group of individuals who have another explanation. Using brain-scan technologies and modern statistical techniques, a band of committed academics in recent years have set out to decipher that mysterious quality from which legendary leadership is born. And some have reached what a previous generation of observers might have considered a dubious conclusion: That it’s possible not just to reverse-engineer charisma, but that it’s something, at least in part, we might learn to master.
“Charismatic tactics can be taught, and the more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” says John Antonakis, a professor of Organizational Behavior, and Director of the Ph.D. program in management at the University of Lausanne. (Read the Nautilus feature about how we create charismatic leaders and the dangerous consequences of their power.)
By studying well-known charismatics and replicating their actions in the lab, Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling, to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated gestures at key moments.
t the request of Nautilus, Antonakis assigned a doctoral student, Benjamin Tur, to sit down and code the first 10 minutes of a 2012 sermon by Osteen, “The Power of I Am,” a speech that Oprah Winfrey says changed her life.
The sermon opens with a photographic montage that includes an image of a smiling Osteen, standing with his photogenic family—son, daughter, and wife—autumn leaves cascading joyfully down around them. It moves to snapshots of his son throwing a football, his daughter kissing a puppy dog, and finally lands on Joel standing with his beautiful wife Victoria, her long blonde hair billowing gently in the wind. The screen cuts to a camera slowly moving over a huge multiracial stadium crowd of all shapes and sizes, panning in and resting with the handsome Osteen. That’s when the magic begins.
Osteen is clad in an impeccable Cerulean blue suit, crisp white shirt and purple, paisley tie, and he is at that very moment, extending his arm and open hand outward toward the screen—toward me—toward all of us—beckoning viewers to join him.
“God bless you! It’s a joy to come into your homes,” Osteen says, pointing his index finger E.T.-like at the viewing audience for just a second, flashing a humble smile, then leaning his right shoulder ever so slightly toward the camera, while blinking his long eyelashes rapidly, as if awakening to a bright, glorious morning. “We love you. If you are ever in our area, please stop by and be a part of one of our services! I promise you we’ll make you feel right at home. Thanks so much for tuning in.”
Osteen shambles over to a wooden podium, places a hand gently on its edge, and tells the audience he likes to start with “something funny.”
“I heard about this 92-year-old man,” Osteen begins. “He wasn’t feeling up to par and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later the doctor saw him walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, ‘Wow you sure are feeling a lot better aren’t you!’ He said, ‘Yes, doctor, I’m just taking your orders. You said, ‘Get a hot mama and be cheerful.’ The doctor said, ‘I didn’t say that, I said ‘You got a heart murmur be careful!’”
With the tone set, Osteen is off, exhorting his followers to hold their Bibles aloft, repeat a prayer, and then launching into an inspirational message.
Right out of the gate, Osteen is using three of Antonakis’ identified tactics: an animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures. All three figure in Osteen’s opening, even before he has launched into his actual sermon. Taken together, the gestures cue the audience that they have arrived on friendly territory, and encourage them to let down their guards. Osteen begins his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the power of I am,” he says. “What follows these two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. I am blessed. I am strong, I am healthy. Or, I am slow, I am unattractive, I am a terrible mother. The I ams that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure.”
To connect through a verbal message, Antonakis says, a leader must do three things. He must
- “frame” a vision or paint a picture by using metaphor or stories. He must
- express sentiments of the collective. Finally, he must
- deliver it all in an in animated and passionate way. In the minutes that follow, Osteen will continue to do all three.
Of the 12 different CLTs that Antonakis and Tur look for, nine are verbal. They are:
- metaphor and comparison,
- rhetorical question,
- lists and repetitions,
- moral convictions,
- expressing the sentiments of the collective,
- setting high and ambitious goals, and
- creating confidence that goals can be achieved.
Osteen uses on average one charismatic verbal tactic every two sentences. By comparison, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has well over three times as many verbal signaling techniques per sentence—his language is infused with powerful imagery and metaphor. “Osteen’s speech is rather average when it comes to use of verbal signaling techniques,” the academics say.
But Osteen makes up for his relative poverty of verbal CLTs by the way he delivers his sermon. He takes full advantage of the medium of the television, which allows us to watch him up close.
Antonakis and Tur say that Osteen shows an open body posture and uses representative gestures at key moments; for instance, when he says, “I am so old,” he mimics wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. There is also his voice. He displays variation both in term of pitch and speed, slowing down, using pauses or speeding up. “Like MLK, his voice sometimes vibrates in this preacher style,” Antonakis and Tur say. Finally, there is Osteen’s facial expression. “He is smiling constantly and accompanies that by raising his eyebrows, making his face more expressive.”
In conclusion, say Antonakis and Tur, the handsome Osteen “embodies his speech and smiles constantly throughout the talk. This combination of nonverbal behavior makes the speech captivating for the audience.”
Tom Justice was once a cyclist chasing
Olympic gold. Then he began using his bike
for a much different purpose: robbing banks... It would be many months before Tom Justice would even be considered for a nickname by the FBI. Armed robbers and violent offenders are the agency’s top priority. And Tom had perpetrated just one nonviolent “note job” for a haul of $5,580. He wasn’t going to draw heat, especially when the FBI was handling a record 171 bank robberies in the Chicago area in 1998. For now, Tom would stay under the radar. And he took precautions to keep it that way... On October 27, 1999, nearly one year to the day after his first robbery, Tom hit the Lake Forest branch of Northern Trust. He wore a similar disguise and used his bike to escape with $3,247. This time he put the $20 and $100 bills into paper bags and discarded them in alleys where he knew homeless people would find them. He took all the $2 bills and hid them in the bushes outside his apartment. The Eastern European superintendent had two kids who used to play in the courtyard. Tom watched from his second-floor living room window as they discovered the money and screamed and giggled. Robbing banks and giving away the money was intoxicating. Tom saw himself as both mischievous and righteous.
But as time passed, that feeling faded. Tom’s real life seemed mediocre and unfulfilling. He wrestled with depression. And so he returned to the one thing that would instantly lift his spirits.
.. As the harsh winter winds blew off Lake Michigan, the streets became icy and impossible to navigate by bike. Cooped up that January, Tom brooded miserably, unable to shake the realization that at 29, his window of opportunity to become a world-class cyclist had nearly passed. If he wanted to pursue his Olympic dream, he had to do it now.
.. But the monotony of training was setting in, and Tom’s promise to himself was soon forgotten. His secret identity — and the instant rush that only a robbery could provide — called to him.
.. He pocketed all the $5s and $1s and left the $20s inside public restrooms and port-a-potties at beaches. He didn’t need the money.
.. Then one morning, Tom awoke in the Turret and found he couldn’t move. An intense pain surged through his lower back. He’d thrown it out overtraining. It would take hours before he could even get to his feet — and weeks before he could pedal without waking up in agony the day after. Muscle spasms kept causing his body to contort. His right shoulder was two inches higher than his left. His plan to race in the Olympic trials was over.
Soon after he returned to Chicago, Laura dumped Tom for good. He had changed. He wasn’t merely devastated about missing the trials; he was colder, more distant, and secretive. “I don’t know what’s going on with you,” she said. “But I know it’s not right.”
.. Tom couldn’t resist. Sharing an apartment with a beat cop while committing federal felonies was an insane proposition. But with no girlfriend, no job, and no Olympics, all he had left was his unrelenting desire to feel exceptional, to prove to himself that he was too clever to get caught.
.. Once his lower back recovered, Tom robbed the LaSalle Bank in Highland Park — the heist in which he dumped his $4,009 haul in a park trash can. The next week, he hit three banks in three days, and it didn’t always go smoothly.Outside a Bank One in Evanston, a dye pack exploded in his bag, ruining all the cash. Later that day, he hit an Edens Bank in Wilmette, where a heavyset 50-something teller took one look at Tom’s note and harshly scolded him in a Slavic language. She pointed sternly at Tom, who quickly fled without any money. The third robbery, at a Harris Bank in Wilmette, was a success, but when Tom rode up to his apartment, he saw two cop cars parked on the front lawn. His heart sunk — until he realized it was just his roommate, George. Tom went upstairs to his room, where he hid the $4,244 he’d stolen. George had no clue his roommate had just knocked over his 13th bank.
Two months later, Tom robbed the Bank of Northern Illinois in Libertyville. Chief Carey, who’d spent that winter helping blow snow from his neighbor Jay Justice’s driveway, didn’t have any leads — and neither did the FBI. The most interesting aspect of the robber’s MO — his getaway vehicle — was still unknown.
.. No one suspected Tom, and so he grew cocky. Once, at a nightclub, he met a 20-something brunette in a midnight-blue cocktail dress. Tom couldn’t believe it when he learned she was a U.S. marshal. On the dance floor, as loud club music pulsed, she smiled playfully.
“So what do you do?” she yelled.
“I rob banks.” He grinned and continued dancing.
She nodded and kept dancing, too.
.. Working out of a cluttered garage in a suburban industrial park, Steelman built only 50 bicycles per year. He charged $2,500 just for the frame. Given the demand, he maintained a growing waitlist. If potential customers didn’t strike his fancy, Steelman would decline them. This, of course, increased the cachet of owning a Steelman. As nearby Silicon Valley inflated with disposable income, Steelman bikes reached cult status... Higher Gear’s club riders all wore matching red, white, and blue spandex. One day, the bike shop’s manager mentioned to Tom that a local rider was selling a used Steelman, a 12-speed road bike built in 1996. Since Tom’s bike had been stolen, he was looking for a replacement. The Steelman would be a welcome upgrade.
.. On group rides with the Higher Gear team, Tom was easy to spot atop his bright orange bicycle. Other riders consistently complimented the Steelman. It was, without question, the nicest bicycle Tom had ever owned. And not once did he ever ponder which was more amusing — a bike builder named Steelman or a bank robber named Justice.
Many years ago, the Israeli Bedouin expert Clinton Bailey told me a story about a Bedouin chief who discovered one day that his favorite turkey had been stolen. He called his sons together and told them: “Boys, we are in great danger now. My turkey’s been stolen. Find my turkey.” His boys just laughed and said, “Father, what do you need that turkey for?” and they ignored him.
A few weeks later the Bedouin chief’s camel was stolen. His sons went to him and said, “Father, your camel has been stolen. What should we do?” And the chief answered, “Find my turkey.”
A few weeks later the chief’s horse was stolen, and again his sons asked what they should do. “Find my turkey,” the chief said.
Finally, a few weeks later his daughter was abducted, at which point he gathered his sons and told them: “It’s all because of the turkey! When they saw that they could take my turkey, we lost everything.”
.. how and why we failed to contain the egregious behavior of both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
They each started by — metaphorically speaking — stealing a turkey. And when we didn’t respond, they kept ratcheting up their wretched behavior to the point where Trump thinks he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and Putin thinks he could poison a wayward spy in London, and get away with it.
Trump’s turkey was his tax returns. During the campaign he promised to release them after the I.R.S. finished auditing him. Then, after he was elected, Trump said, sorry, not going to release them ever. And nothing happened. Trump, I am reliably told, has actually said to people close to him, “Can you believe I got away with that?”
.. Once Trump saw that he could get away with not disclosing his tax returns, he knew he could get away with anything.
.. Any Bedouin chief who watched the steady acceleration in the breadth and pace of Trump’s lying — like his recent boast that he had fabricated a trade deficit with Canada in talks with Canada’s prime minister or his dishonest statements to discredit Robert Mueller’s investigation — would tell you: Get me Trump’s tax returns.
.. Because there must be something very important in them that he wants to keep hidden.
.. Maybe it’s just the embarrassment that he is not as rich as he claims, or, maybe, it’s something more fundamental — like how dependent he is on Russian oligarchs for financing
.. Putin’s turkey was even more serious. It was the shooting down of that Malaysian civilian airliner, Flight MH17
.. Putin’s proxies in eastern Ukraine had requested that Russia send them an SA-11 surface-to-air missile launcher.
.. Putin did not push the button on that missile, but he created the conditions for it to shoot down that plane — and he walked away from it as if the plane were brought down by lightning, making up one implausible story after another. He got slapped on the wrist with a few sanctions, but his complicity faded away into a mist of baldfaced lies.
.. Who wanted to confront Russia, with all its gas exports to Europe and all its oligarchs throwing money around London or buying condos in places like … Trump Tower in New York?
.. Why not poison a former Russian spy in London with a banned military nerve agent or perpetrate genocide in Syria? Who’s going to stop me?”
Trump and Putin are cut from the same cloth. Their strategy is: keep pushing, keep grabbing, keep lying, keep denying, no matter how implausible the denials — and never apologize. Because when you lie on an industrial scale, it overwhelms everyone else. Normal people just don’t behave that way, and the sheer shamelessness eventually exhausts them.
.. when people keep eroding the norms of society, stealing — turkeys or the truth — eventually becomes the norm.
.. That steady erosion of norms is what Trump is doing to America and Putin is doing to the world.
.. American voters have to go to the polls and deal a resounding electoral defeat to this Republican Party, which Trump has taken over like an invasive species.
.. America needs a healthy conservative party in our two-party system. But this G.O.P. is not a conservative party and it is not healthy.
.. As for Putin, the only way to brush him back is with economic sanctions that truly hurt him and his corrupt clique of oligarchs, and an offensive cyber campaign that exposes just how much money they have all stolen from the Russian people.
.. Bullies like Trump and Putin are relentless. They will keep driving through red lights, smirking all the way, as long as we let them.
.. As the great philosopher Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
You know, I was interviewing a researcher at Columbia University. Her name is Xiaodong Lin, and she’s done a lot of work looking at trying to get children interested in science. And she finds something really fascinating that speaks to exactly what you just talked about, which is the traditional way we have of teaching science is to tell people, you know, there was this great physicist, Albert Einstein. And he was the greatest genius the world has ever known, and he came up with theories that, even today, many people struggle to understand. So that’s the classic way we tell science stories.
And what she found was that instead of doing that, if you tell a story which says something along the lines of, you know, there was a time when Einstein was working on a problem, and he got so stuck that he couldn’t figure out the math. And he needed help to figure out the math, and he reached out to somebody else, saying, I can’t figure out the math to this. Can you please help me? When you tell stories that involve struggle and obstacles and failures about scientists, not only does this hold people’s attention, but kids are now able to say, I could see myself being a scientist because I need help with math. I turn to somebody else to get help for math. And this idea that the obstacle, in some ways, is what makes the story the story is, I think, what you mean by the middle.
.. Because when I left the science show, I realized that the reason that the show worked was because we had a real connection between us. It wasn’t an ordinary interview. I never went in with a set of questions – not after the beginning. I went in just being curious and really good and ignorant. It’s good to be ignorant as long as you’re curious – not so good if you’re not curious. So I would be willing to reveal my ignorance to them, so they knew where I was in my understanding of their work. And then if I didn’t understand what they were saying, I’d grab them by the lapels and shake them. Tell me again. What do you – so they forgot about the camera. They forgot about the lectures they had given on this. They were just trying to make me understand it. And I realized that what I was doing was relating to them, and they were relating to me in the same way two actors do when they let each other in to their field of consciousness.
So I thought the best way to train people to do that is through improvisation training. And I tried it out with a group of engineers. And after three hours, they were so much better talking about their work.
.. And what this – what the improvising work does is it actually builds up your empathy. You get very good at being able to figure out what the other person is going through emotionally.
So now, this cab driver pulls over. He says, where are you going? And I start to get crazy mad. Where am I going? You’ve got to take me no matter where I’m going. But instead of that, I think, wait a minute. It’s the day – it’s the time of day when he’s switching shifts. He’s got to give the cab to somebody else. I understand why he’s saying it. And it helped me accept it.
.. And I’ve noticed that the more empathy I have, the less annoying other people are.