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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In the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, the camera loved JFK's ease as much as it hated Richard Nixon's flop sweat and stage fright. In the current campaign, the camera's favorite is clearly Obama. The camera loves him, just as it once loved Bill Clinton, if only because the camera never seems to faze him.Skip to next paragraph
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Choosing a president has never been a more serious matter, and some will question whether a candidate's personal charisma really matters. Isn't charisma something relatively trivial, akin to, say, a nice head of hair and a bit of charm?
No. We firmly believe that the charismatic leader's unique capacity to inspire should not be undervalued. Before they pick America's 44th president in November, voters should give great weight to what a candidate with charisma would bring to the table.
But doesn't history caution against putting faith in a charismatic leader? True, some of history's worst villains – Adolf Hitler, of course, springs to mind – have been dangerous demagogues with a stranglehold on their public's fears and aspirations, which they have abused for their own wicked, self-aggrandizing schemes.
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.
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.