Mars Disarmed by Venus by Jacques-Louis David, 1824 (Wikimedia Commons - public domain)
What is charm?
In a certain sense, it has to do with grace and good humor, with comportment and instilling a feeling of warmth in others. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on Manners, wrote:
"I have seen an individual whose manners, though wholly within the conventions of elegant society, were never learned there, but were original and commanding and held out protection and prosperity; one who did not need the aid of a court-suit, but carried the holiday in his eye; who exhilarated the fancy by flinging wide the doors of new modes of existence; who shook off the captivity of etiquette, with happy, spirited bearing, good-natured and free as Robin Hood; yet with the port of an emperor, if need be,—calm, serious, and fit to stand the gaze of millions."
If you asked young Archie that question—What is charm?—he would have had a hard time answering.
You see, Archie came from a working-class background, his father a worker in a clothes factory and his mother a seamstress. Archie just wasn't exposed to the refinement and sophistication that we associate with charm.
It didn't help that his parents never showed him the kind of love and attention that an only child might usually expect. It may have had something to do with his older brother dying before Archie was born. The result was that his mother did not know how to give affection and did not know how to receive it either.
When he was nine, his father sent Archie's mother away to a mental institution and told Archie that she went on a long holiday, and later that she had died; when he was 10, his father remarried and started a new family that did not include little Archie.
Due to this alienation from his parents, Archie had a nervous disposition, finding it difficult to socialize and develop any meaningful relationships with his peers.
He managed to get himself expelled from school and joined a troupe of performers as a stilt walker and an acrobatic dancer. While he enjoyed performing, he preferred to keep a distance from the audience.
But over time, something changed in Archie. He went from that socially awkward adolescent to a garrulous, sophisticated adult. He transformed his stagecraft from stilts and juggling to mastery of comedy and drama alike.
His father's jobs in the textile industry must have been deeply ingrained in Archie, as he became universally recognized as a man of style. His appeal was broad, as he showed the coarse how to have class and the over-refined how to have the common touch.
That is one way to define charm.
And it's certainly a way to define Archie Leach, otherwise known as Cary Grant.
Charm: A Powerful Skill for the Emotionally Intelligent Leader
Cary Grant's evasiveness and self-awareness was legendary. In one apocryphal story, in his later years he was sent a telegram from an inquisitive magazine reporter: "How old Cary Grant?" He supposedly replied, "Old Cary Grant fine — how you?"
You've probably come across a small handful of people in your life who you just have to admire. They light up a room when they walk in. They have an ease of conversation with people. They make you want to spend more time in their presence. You can't help but want to be like them.
You might call this charisma. But charisma is slightly different. Charisma has to do with presence and power. Charm? Charm requires a certain presence, but power is not typically seen as charming.
Charm operates almost on the plane of magic. It can be learned, but not taught. It's hard to define, but we know it when we see it. And it certainly involves having a sense of self-awareness and of reading an audience. The types of things you'd see from an emotionally intelligent leader.
"Charm is a way of getting the answer yes without having asked any clear question."
— Albert Camus
When you exude charm, like Cary Grant, you don't need to ask anything of the people around you. The famous movie critic Pauline Kael wrote this about Grant: "We smile when we see him; we laugh before he does anything; it makes us happy just to look at him."
That's quite a talent.
Can you make your customers and employees do things without even asking? If you can get your brand—personal or otherwise—to have that kind of effect on your intended audience, you're charming.
Warm and social, cheerful and energetic, good-natured and irresistible, charm is in short supply these days. We could do with repeat viewings of old Hollywood classics with William Powell and Myrna Loy, Laurel and Hardy, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and others who had a distinct sense of charm.
Perhaps we can pick up on some aspects that made them charming, and assemble a version of charm that works for us, as elusive as that may be.
After all, Cary Grant himself said, "Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even I want to be Cary Grant."