Barack Obama and the case for charisma
Charisma is more than a way with words and an attractive face. It's about inspiring America to greatness again.
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A far more mundane disappointment in charismatic individuals is that they sometimes reveal themselves to have been smooth-tongued empty suits without the capacity to deliver results. Not evil, simply not especially good, in practice, at getting things done – "all hat, no cattle," as President Bush might put it. This is the center of gravity of the charge that Hillary Rodham Clinton has made about Obama.Skip to next paragraph
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In the American business sector, for example, highly charismatic CEOs who could wow Wall Street analysts – at least for a time – were once hugely celebrated and admired. But the charismatic corporate "superstar" CEO is largely passé.
In his influential book, "True North," Bill George celebrates "authentic" corporate leaders who radiate humility more than powerful inspiration. Certainly, the move in recent years from cult of personality in executive suites to quieter competence in solving organizational problems is a very welcome development.
In Obama, we see unusually strong character and good temperament – thus negligible risk of demagoguery. But yes, even voters who find him spellbinding are well advised to satisfy themselves about his (and any candidate's) character.
Moreover, the capacity to deliver results is essential in a president, particularly in these times of great challenge; and on this Obama will need to continue to make his case. But it is precisely in this regard that we believe his extraordinary capacity to inspire would empower Obama as to deliver solutions for the extraordinary range of problems we face as a nation. In contrast to the corporate CEO's broad power to drive change throughout a business firm, an American president operates in a highly constrained setting. Checks and balances, together with the divided red state-blue state electorate, makes it challenging to get anything done.
Against that backdrop, a president with charisma and good character – and, of course, sound policy ideas – would be an invaluable national resource, with the transformational capacity to lift the malaise that is paralyzing so many Americans today.
An inspirational president could restore a sense of agency to the American people, imbuing us with the confidence that the choices we make and the actions we take can shape our families' and our country's future, that we are not the hapless victims of forces that we cannot control. A charismatic leader could break through the prevailing orthodoxy that the nation is permanently divided into red and blue states and condemned to bitter partisanship, and build a broader sense of community, with a compelling new vision.
He or she could persuade the alienated to set aside their cynicism, engage with public life, and sacrifice for their country. Such a president could do what JFK did a generation ago and galvanize young people to serve their country and themselves by confronting such seemingly intractable problems as failing schools, poverty, disease, and climate change. Looking abroad, such a leader could restore the high standing the United States once had in the world, not because of its wealth but because of its moral stature.
The election of a charismatic president might help counter images of America as invader and occupier and replenish the country's woefully depleted stock of "soft power."
In the past, both JFK and Bill Clinton used their rock star-like magnetism to enhance America's reputation abroad – despite policy disagreements with other countries. Another charismatic president could start to mend our nation's tattered global reputation.
To be sure, charisma isn't everything. A great leader needs many qualities – character, judgment, and experience among them. But voters would do well to remember that charisma is more than a way with words and an attractive face. It is a powerful tool that the rare and fortunate candidate who has it can use to repair and inspire a nation aching to feel its greatness once again.
• Warren Bennis is distinguished professor of management at the University of Southern California and coauthor, most recently, of "Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls." Andy Zelleke is lecturer in public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and codirector of its Center for Public Leadership.