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Charisma and Leadership

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Barack Obama has "charisma", the special power of a person to inspire fascination and loyalty. But with the eruption of the Reverend Jeremiah Wright's recent remarks and a worsening economy, a new situation is testing Obama's charismatic appeal, and this raises an important question. Does charisma originate in the individual, in the followers, or in the situation? As I argue in my recent book The Powers to Lead, the answer is all three.

Charisma proves surprisingly hard to identify in advance. Dick Morris, the political consultant, reports that in his experience, "charisma is the most elusive of political traits because it doesn't exist in reality; only in our perception once a candidate has made it by hard work and good issues." Political scientists have tried to create charisma scales that would predict votes or presidential ratings, but they have not proven fruitful. Like Obama, John F. Kennedy is often described as charismatic, but obviously not for everyone since he failed to capture a majority of the popular vote, and his ratings varied during his presidency.

Followers are more likely to attribute charisma to leaders when they feel a strong need for change, often in the context of a personal, organizational or social crisis. For example, the British public did not see Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but a year later, his vision, confidence, and communications skills made him charismatic in the eyes of the British people given the anxieties they felt after the Dunkirk evacuation. Yet by 1945, when the public focus turned from winning the war to the construction of a welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office. His charisma did not predict his electoral defeat. The change in followers' needs was a better predictor.

The columnist Peggy Noonan has written, "Barack Obama has a great thinking look. It's a very present look. He seems more in the moment than handling the moment." Clearly this is one of the reasons that Obama has a reputation for charisma. But another part of his charisma is in the eyes of his followers. We know it when we see it, but in the case of charisma, we are also looking in a mirror. As the economy worsens and old racial divisions re-emerge, the national debate changes. This will be the true test of Obama's charisma. Charisma tells us something about a candidate, but even more about ourselves, the mood of the country, and the types of change we desire. The coming weeks will be an interesting test.