the art of looking for your ‘it’ factor (+ where you just might find ‘it’)




I don’t really get Anne Hathaway. I can recognize that she’s gorgeous, talented, charming, all that, but for whatever reason she just doesn’t ring my bell.

I don’t really get Kate Middleton. I was never the biggest fan of Julia Roberts, even when I enjoyed her performances. And I didn’t take to Brad Pitt until he got a bit more lined and rugged and, in my mind, more interesting.

On the other hand, I have always had this thing for Keanu Reeves, to the great bemusement and mystery of some of my friends. (They don’t ‘get’ Keanu like I do.)

(I keep telling my people, “Bring me Keanu Reeves”, and yet it does not happen.)

It’s not like any of these people would care, nor should they; somehow their stardom flourishes with or without my approval. But in response to a recent post, a reader referred to the ‘it’ factor and commented

You either have it or you don’t.

Except recently I read a book, THE NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF LEADERSHIP, putting forward a theory that could be applied to charisma in general. If you define charisma as the ability to attract followers, to inspire devotion and adoration, then here’s the thing:

Either people follow you or they don’t.

Your ‘charisma’ is decided by them. But if you truly had ‘it’ – if ‘it’ was a fact of your very being, like gold-flecked hazel eyes or how your second toe is slightly longer than your big toe – then ‘it’ would belong to you, and not to other people to bestow upon you if and when and for how long they choose. What’s more, everybody would recognize and acknowledge it: “Oh yeah, that’s Jane Galligan. She is five eight, she lives in Los Angeles, she has brown eyes, big feet, one younger brother and ‘it’.”

(This, by the way, is similar to the ‘great man’ theory of leadership, in which we regard leadership as a magical trait of a few select individuals regardless of situation or context.)

But charisma, like leadership, doesn’t happen inside you. You may generate or project it, but it takes place in the space between you and other people.

Or rather, between you and some other people. Because not everybody’s going to agree. Not everybody’s going to find your brand of beauty intriguing; not everybody’s going to like what you stand for. One person’s ‘charismatic’ is another person’s ‘annoying’ is another person’s total indifference.


Why do we follow whom we follow? In NEW PSYCHOLOGY OF LEADERSHIP, the authors argue rather convincingly that we follow people who remind us in some way of ourselves, or of how we’d like to see ourselves. Leaders don’t tell us what to think so much as clarify what we don’t know we’re thinking, or must struggle to express.

They don’t tell us what to do so much as show us who we are.

A charismatic person is of us, our group, our tribe: they represent us, or some aspect of us, so well that we can wear our fandom as a badge of identity, a direct statement about who we think we are. They are also for us: they stand for some larger vision that promotes our own goals, values, worldview. They find ways to manifest that worldview and code it into reality, to move us forward, to further develop that shared understanding of who we are and what we stand for (the authors refer to leaders as “entrepreneurs of identity”).

You are charismatic, then, when you somehow represent the essence or the spirit of your group – whatever your group happens to be. The bigger the group, the bigger your tribe of followers, the greater your fame….but charisma comes in all shapes and sizes. Your ‘it’ could be small and tightly knit, with loyalties that run deep: your 1000 fans who buy everything you make.


If you represent the group, if you become a kind of projection of identity, no wonder authenticity is so important, and so powerful.

I was thinking about this when I read Abby Kerr’s thoughtful post in which she asks the entrepreneurial blogosphere to please stop mimicking the A-listers. She was speaking of one A-lister in particular known for her fun, sexy, tongue-in-cheek approach to delivering her very solid content. This A-lister (unless I’m thinking of the wrong one, but I doubt it) has a background in dance, fitness and choreography, as well as a great and wacky sense of humor. The videos she puts into circulation make sense for her. Because she also happens to be gorgeous, it might be easy to think that she’s selling on sex appeal, and to try to mimic that; but what she’s selling is an identity, or a fantasy of identity, and you either resonate with that (and sign up for her programs) or don’t (and go elsewhere). “Not everybody gets my brand,” I remember her once saying to a room full of women. “Some people just look at what I do, and go, Huh? They don’t get it at all.” And that’s the way of it. You can’t stand for one group without alienating another group, any more than you can be all things to all people.

This A-lister didn’t try to win over everybody. She took certain elements of her personality and pushed them to the edge, until they became the hallmarks of her brand. She stood apart in a way that genuinely represented who she was. She’s giving us a very polished and savvy presentation of self, yes, but it’s a performance that rings with the truth of who she is — and is not just her take on what she thinks worked for someone else.

When you mimic someone’s style, you are in effect hiding behind them. You are not showing us who you really are. If we can’t see the truth of you, then we can’t see ourselves in you. We don’t know what group you belong to — only that it’s probably not ours – and if we don’t think you’re of us, and for us, then we’re already moving on.


Used to be that the culture had an ‘it’ girl, who somehow represented the spirit of the age – or rather, what some people considered the spirit of the age. Since they were the people running the show, their worldview was front and center. It ruled.

But those were the days when we only had a handful of television stations and no way of talking back to the media. The media gave us what they thought we wanted, or what they wanted us to want, and because there was nothing else on, we watched or listened or read, which made them think that we must really want it, so they gave us more of the same.

But now. The media has shattered into pieces that are shattering into more pieces….So many different channels. So many different platforms. The spirit of this age can be just as multi-faceted, complex and diverse as we are. Not just one ‘it’ girl or boy who is said to stand in for us all: the soul of the culture shines out behind many faces.

We need that. A democracy isn’t a democracy unless every voice gets out there, every story told.

Yes, you should, like your mama tells you, just be yourself, but we need more from you than that. We need you to know who you are and what you stand for and what unique group you can represent through being who you truly are: who you can bring together, who might see themselves in you. We need you to find your tools and master your skillset and use them to develop your art, your voice, your it, to the most compelling pitch possible and then amplify it out to the rest of us. We need you to find those places where you resonate, where the truth of your inner life opens up to the truth of ours, and we can, as John Lennon once put it, come together.

Because, when all is said and done, that’s what it is all about.

Jul 3, 2012

11 comments · Add Yours

“We follow people who remind us in some way of ourselves, or of how we’d like to see ourselves.”

So true. I was never a fan of Sean Connery or Roger Moore, but Daniel Craig has made me love James Bond. I like the man; there are things in him that I want to emulate, even if its on the surface. The confidence, the control. The bad-assery (is that a word?).

I find this is true of people in the public eye that I look up to and respect. I’m “attracted” to them because they embody a trait I want for myself. Or maybe have somewhere inside of me.

You’re on that list, Justine, for how you can so clearly and vividly express what you want to express. For making these often complex ideas exciting and sexy. And very attainable.

Thank you.


Great post Justine! Thank you for the inspiration this morning.

“The media has shattered into pieces that are shattering into more pieces….So many different channels. So many different platforms. The spirit of this age can be just as multi-faceted, complex and diverse as we are. Not just one ‘it’ girl or boy who is said to stand in for us all: the soul of the culture shines out behind many faces.
We need that. A democracy isn’t a democracy unless every voice gets out there, every story told and heard.”

Perfectly written. Yes! That is why it is so fascinating to be living in the time we are. Love.


I don’t believe people follow ‘it’ people anymore. They follow ‘it’ movements. You are correct that media has been shattered into a million shards heading in every direction. But these shards are individual voices that seem to be magnetically driven back into themselves to create one movement. They shoot out into the universe only to end up finding each other like the miracle DNA of bees. The hive mind has become the ‘it’ of today.


you should mention level of consciousness …

people of higher states of consciousness see others as themselves, and this is incredibly inspiring.

want to lead? meditate, or be born with high consciousness.


So glad to find out you, too, “get” Keanu Reeves. He is a shockingly under-appreciated actor and a fine human being.


Very interesting. For me, I always get stuck here: We need you to know who you are and what you stand for… Because what if you don’t know that? What if who you are changes constantly, so that who you think you are and what you think you want one week is not the same as the next week?


I was asked recently who I considered my spirit mother. Someone to whom my being finds connection. Truth is, this changes depending on the changes I’m trying to make at a particular moment in my life. I’m changing spiritual mothers, influencers, all the time. Right now she looks like Marion Cotillard.


Thanks for the thoughtful post. Something that enters into the conversation is that few of us have a clear notion of who we really are. That can be a key reason for mimicking others–we’re attracted to people who seem to have a clear idea of who they are. The irony, of course, is that many of the “it” folks are media creations and hide their own insecurities behind those personas.

One of the values of blogging, perhaps an unexpected one, is that it seems to be helping people learn more about themselves. This can help lead them, possibly for the first time, to an appreciation of who they are. At least I’d like to think so. This may be a phenomenom particular to this moment in time, and if so, it’s a positive one. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that what we’re writing about has any interest to someone else or that it’s any “good” by conventional standards, but if it helps us find ourselves and our voice, that’s a pretty damn good result, whether or not that was the original intent.


and *I* don’t get Justine Musk. A statistical sampling of her posts here indicate she is interested in 1) herself, 2) herself, and 3) herself.


I’m certainly not interested in guys like you, Ralph, who call a woman narcissistic because she has the audacity to draw from, talk about and thus give value to her own experiences. (Excuse me while I roll my eyes.) Any ‘statistical sampling’ of my posts show that I’m interested in a number of things (as well as myself) so you might want to recalibrate your methods. Be well.


Yes, Justine, for me you’ve got the audacity, the intelligence, the adventurous spirit and the wit to make your posts unerringly fun to read. I’m glad your voice is out there, with all its unique itness :)


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