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Leading in a New Direction: Barack Obama's Changing Leadership Style

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Last week, we learned that it is easier to fire a four star general than it is to plug a hole in the ground a mile under the sea. We also learned that Barack Obama's leadership style is still a work in progress.

This would seem bewildering to anyone who has been living in a bomb shelter for the last year and a half. The image of Barack Obama from the 2008 presidential campaign was so skillfully choreographed and so carefully controlled that the best his rivals could do was to mock him for being too eloquent, too inspiring, and, on the whole, too exceptional. This strategy--which is akin to trying to take down a pageant contestant by accusing her of having a blinding smile and being too darn congenial--failed spectacularly, but it is a tribute to the President and his campaign staff that the attack appeared the last, best option to Hillary Clinton and John McCain alike.

Presidential campaigns always attract their fair share of strong personalities (Alan Keyes anyone?), but not since Ronald Reagan had a charismatic candidate emerged from the sturm und drang of the campaign season with his image seemingly untouched. Indeed, the Barack Obama of election night is the closest thing we have had to a pure charismatic leader in modern political history. Throughout the campaign, his professional resume, by no means modest if not necessarily the stuff of successful presidential candidates, was mostly window dressing. By appealing to hope and change, Obama did not try double-down on past accomplishments, like Clinton and McCain, he was asking for the full faith of voters in his future potential.

This is a familiar selling point for charismatic leaders, and the most successful among them have a tendency to skyrocket in popularity. Whether that popularity endures, however, is a separate matter. Most are like tech stocks, never worth more than when they are little known. As long as they can skate along on potential--think John Edwards, Fred Thompson--they can rely on wishful thinking to get the better of rational decisions, appearance to trump reality.

Many Republicans would say that this is precisely what happened in the 2008 election, but that doesn't give Obama credit for enduring the ultra-marathon of a 20-month campaign. The virtues he displayed there--patience, persistence, fortitude, equanimity--were all essential to his victory, and it is only the last of them that has become something of a liability for him as President.

Candidate Obama could afford the appearance of cool detachment without undermining his charisma. As a simple constitutional matter, "Change We Can Believe In" could not take effect until inauguration day. Thus, he could weather the dawn of the financial crisis with the calm demeanor he is famous for largely because nobody expected him to do anything about it. By contrast, when John McCain suspended his campaign, ran back to Washington, and became a sidewalk evangelist for the financial apocalypse--having declared only days before that the "fundamentals" of the economy were "strong"--most people wearied of giving him the chance to actually fix it. The Chicken Little act did not inspire very much trust. Americans fell for the Jedi Master.

The problem for Obama, and for any political leader who relies to such a great extent on the power of pure charisma, is that, once in office, they have to make due on the trust that has been extended them. If so much of their success as candidates depends on looking like they would make the right decisions if given the chance, now they must make them, and that can be particularly difficult when there was never any agreement in the first place on what exactly the right decisions are. At the same time, the sangfroid that served the President so well when he was a candidate is now something of a liability. Americans may want a coolly deliberate decision maker behind close doors, but in public, they want to know that he shares their frustrations, particularly when, as in the case of Gulf oil spill, it seems that no one but God can actually solve the problem.

In this regard, the President has faltered. Whether in the case of the spill or the staggering economy, it has come as something of a surprise to many that the same man who so successfully channeled their hope and optimism could now fail to channel their anger and fear. Indeed, the remarkable charisma that Barack Obama showed in the campaign strengthened the belief that all charismatic leaders labor under that they will inevitably mirror the emotions of their followers. Failing to convey them undercuts the personal attachment that sustains their leadership. Worse still is trying to pass off forgeries. When the President said he was looking for asses to kick over the oil spill, nobody believed him. The nation just cringed.

This is why the way in which the President handled the McChrystal situation is so important. Unlike the oil spill, here was a sticky situation the President could be fairly blamed for not resolving, and he did so with the certainty, swift dispatch, and presence of mind he was so admired for during the campaign. Unlike Bill Clinton, the President is never going to be an Empathizer-in-Chief, nor does one get the feeling he particularly cares to be, but if he continues to act decisively and rack up the impressive policy victories that have characterized his first year and a half in office, this won't matter. Supporting a charismatic leader is somewhat like falling in love. Though there is nothing like the first kiss, what sustains a relationship are not the promises that are made but those that are kept.

Barack Obama is still learning how to keep the promises of his transformative campaign, and that process will change him as a leader as he continues to test the treacherous waters of the Presidency. It will also change how we see him as a leader.

Will this marriage survive? Only time will tell.

John Paul Rollert teaches a course in leadership at Harvard Summer School.