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.

scott wallace -staff

Among this season's presidential candidates, Barack Obama has clearly had the edge when it comes to that magical quality known as charisma. Pundits of every political stripe have commented on Senator Obama's "rock-star quality." After meeting him, even the most jaded political reporters have been known to report that he is something rare and special, the heir to such charismatic predecessors as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.

In each generation, a few public figures come along who have a personal magnetism that makes strangers care deeply about them. Call it star power, call it charisma, this infrequent gift is akin to the power that great actors have.

According to legend, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was introduced to Orson Welles, he said graciously: "You know, Mr. Welles, you are the greatest actor in America." "Oh, no, Mr. President," Welles replied, "You are." What Welles recognized in Roosevelt is that political leadership is a performance art as surely as is acting on stage or in films.

When charismatic politicians such as Obama speak, they are able to turn a room full of strangers into a community rich in shared meaning, just as a great actor creates such a community within a theater. Whether such rock-star politicians talk about change or healthcare policy, they articulate a vision that those in the audience quickly make their own.

Charismatic leaders and their followers are interdependent; they feed and energize each other. The transformational leader gives the audience hope and makes it believe that, together, they can create a better future. Winston Churchill was a charismatic leader in this sense, as was Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Like Obama's, their rhetoric was suffused with optimism. They purveyed not fear, but shining new possibilities. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, once said of Gandhi that he made India proud of herself.

Acting ability is an aspect of leadership in every arena, from the playground to the board room. But it is absolutely essential in national politics, where the only contact the average voter has with the candidate or office holder is almost always filtered through the media. Professional training isn't necessary, but only those who can act can succeed on television or the other visual media.

Playwright Arthur Miller explored this in a fascinating little book titled, "On Politics and the Art of Acting." As Mr. Miller observed, today's media require not florid acting, but the less-is-more kind. The candidate who is most likely to succeed today is the one who acts as though the camera isn't there.

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.

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.

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.

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