If you are an Asian-American professional, do you ever feel like life has pulled a bait-and-switch on you? You follow through on all the “should’s” that have guided you over the years and in a way, have helped you get where you are.
Work hard. Get good grades. Participate in extracurricular activities. Get an Ivy League education or if not, the best one you can. Be ethical. Be humble. Serve others. This is the formula for success, right?
Except when it isn’t. Join the club of mid-level management wheel spinners. You know the one, where the members have all experienced early praise and success, but are now hitting the proverbial bamboo ceiling? Do you enjoy doing tremendous work, but getting little recognition or watching others get all the glory? If there was just one thing you could learn that would change your fortunes, would you be willing to do what it takes?
Warning! If you are still enamored of all the “should’s,” if you judge others by them, if you propagate this way of thinking in your own children, then this article is not for you.
Here is the ugly and liberating truth. If you are still mostly a true believer, you may want to take a seat. There is no amount of hard work, dedication, and technical skills that will make people believe you are a leader. Those things will not make people want to follow you or put you in a position where others follow you. In fact, the more you focus on those things to the exclusion of other interpersonal skills, the more likely it is that you will be passed over. Okay, I said it. Everything that you have been worshiping your entire life, while a crucial part of your success, is also crippling you.
If you want to break through the bamboo ceiling, you’re going to have to, in a way, loosen your grip on some of your previous idols and make space for a new passion – Charisma. I know what you are thinking. Perhaps a combination of one or more of the following. I’m an introvert and will never be an extrovert. Isn’t that more for dating? It doesn’t seem honorable to try to get people to like you in order to advance – I was raised with better values. And finally, that’s not fair and if that’s the game, I don’t want to play it!
The reason most people, and a lot of Asians, don’t value Charisma as a serious professional attribute is because their definition or mental model of what it is suffers from an inherent misunderstanding.
If you look up any definition of Charisma, all it will tell you is the effect and uses words like attraction or magnetic. This is true but misses the main point of Charisma which is how it is being generated. Once you understand why Charisma happens, you will see it’s true value. And once you understand how it works, then you can begin to get more of it. Allow me to share a ground-breaking definition of Charisma which will get you back on the right track.
Charisma is the ability to sense, and ultimately deliver, exactly what is most needed from an emotional perspective in a given moment.
Here’s the cold, harsh truth when it comes to leadership and being chosen – people have to feel like you should be the leader; it’s not a calculation. And when it comes to helping people feel secure, confident, and happy, nothing beats Charisma.
Think about that person, in your life or from afar, who is the most charismatic. Notice how they are providing something that you really need emotionally and their outsized ability to deliver it to you makes you loyal, trusting, and willing to follow them. Charisma works as much in the good times as in the bad. When fun is the furthest thing from your mind and you are struggling, it’s the person who can bring you comfort and stability who you are thankful for and search out.
If you find yourself stuck hitting a career ceiling, bamboo, or otherwise, take a good hard look not at what you have in terms of skills and accomplishments, but instead at how you make others feel and whether that is the type of feeling people have for leaders. If you feel like a follower, you will always be relegated to a supporting role, even if it is a high-level, well-paid supporting role. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it should be based on a choice you make and not an oversight.
So you may be wondering, what is the answer to the original question, “Do Asians lack the Charisma needed to lead?”
Once you understand this new definition of Charisma you can see that anyone can have the Charisma needed to lead. Lack of Charisma is not a permanent, fatal condition. You may lack it today, but you can develop it tomorrow. The good news is, now that you understand how it works, you can get started.
I think where many Asian professionals falter is that many of us have been raised to focus on achievement to the exclusion of everything else. As a result, not enough attention is being paid to how to behave like a leader by exhibiting Charisma, Executive Presence, and other interpersonal skills that impact how others feel about us.
One last point. Be kind to your parents. They raised you the best way they knew how and frankly, it’s about 20 years too late to blame your parents for any mistakes or oversights you are making now.
I lied, second last point. Your leaders will not tell you that this is the one thing holding you back. Not because they dislike you, but because a) they don’t really understand this dynamic clearly enough to express it; or b) they do know this is the problem, but they don’t trust themselves, you, or the company lawyers to wade into this minefield with you. This is all okay. This is the first day of a new day where you start to tear down that ceiling and climb as far and as high as you choose. See you in Penthouse Suite!
For more details, check out the video here of a presentation I recently gave to a group supporting Chinese-American professionals where we discussed Charisma at length;