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In Praise of Poise

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Since the final McCain-Obama debate last week, we have been flooded with comments about Senator Obama's "coolness," his "unflappability." It was obvious that Senator McCain was doing whatever he could to get a rise out of his opponent, throwing everything from terrorist associations to the specter of class warfare (socialism!) at Barack. Obama smiled, occasionally shook his head with an air of bemusement, but generally refused to take the bait. Many have noted that he was playing conservatively because he is perceived to have the lead. Others have reasoned that there was something eerie or even duplicitous in the calm demeanor of the young senator. The contrast with the blinking, sarcastic and sometimes jumpy McCain was striking.

Some observers have taken Obama's poise in the face of the relentless attacks and the tumult of events as a sign of aloofness, or elitism. They read the calm demeanor as a mark of haughtiness, or even intellectual arrogance. That's one of the reasons the Republicans have beat the "he's not one of us" drum so relentlessly. Republican critics emphasize that this man who seems to be thinking before he speaks, this man who refuses to be goaded into reckless statements or behavior, may just be looking down his nose at the rest of us.

David Brooks' column in Friday's New York Times presented an interesting variation on these themes. Brooks began by noting Obama's remarkable calm:

This has been a period of tumult, combat, exhaustion and crisis. And yet there hasn't been a moment when he has displayed rage, resentment, fear, anxiety, bitterness, tears, ecstasy, self-pity or impulsiveness.

But as he sought to find a way to turn this virtue into a weakness, Brooks continued: "Through some deep, bottom-up process, he has developed strategies for equanimity, and now he's become a homeostasis machine."

After recoding the calm, measured qualities of leadership as machine-like, Brooks concludes:

It could be that Obama will be an observer, not a leader. Rather than throwing himself
passionately into his causes, he will stand back. Congressional leaders, put off by his
supposed intellectual superiority, will just go their own way. Lost in his own nuance, he will
be passive and ineffectual. Lack of passion will produce lack of courage. The Obama
greatness will give way to the Obama anti-climax.

Notice the switch from "could" to "will." Because a candidate is capable of serious thinking we are told he will get "lost in his own nuance."

Poise does connote a state of equilibrium, a state of balance. It is perfectly compatible with passion, but it does mean that one is not at the mercy of one's passions. When others around you are freaking out, people exemplify poise when they maintain an ability to think clearly, to make judgments thoughtfully, to stay balanced. These are some of the qualities that make for strong leadership because we have confidence in people who are able to keep their wits about them even when those around them are losing control. Steadiness and stability go hand in hand with poise, and these, too are qualities that we seek in those who are given great power and responsibility.

The person who exemplifies poise is also said to be "self-possessed" or "dignified." And I suppose these are character traits that can be read as "aloofness," or even "haughtiness." We certainly want our leaders to be in full command of their faculties, a standard definition of "self possession," but we also want them to be capable of understanding our faculties -- and our hopes and dreams.

This is where another dimension of poise becomes crucial. Tact is said in some dictionaries to be synonymous with poise. Tact is the social side of poise; it is the sense of what to say or do in relation to others. Representative democracies like ours require leaders who have a capacity to move other people toward cooperation, and sometimes toward sacrifice and generosity. Whereas poise implies a confident sense of self, tact implies a sensitivity to others.

The opposite of poise would be recklessness, impetuousness in judgment and action. Leaders who rush to judgment, who take pride in not taking time to think (going with their gut) are, we have seen, extremely dangerous. Leaders who lurch from one tactic to another, leaders who seem frantic or desperate, lack poise. This doesn't mean they have courage, just that they have no balance.

The opposite of tact would be the insensitivity to how one's speech or actions are perceived by others. Using speech to stir up hatred or fear, especially when it is done in an intentional way, is the opposite of tact. Tact implies thoughtfulness -- not just popularity.

We are entering a period of our history in which even the most thoughtful of our leaders are likely to be severely tested. Unlike David Brooks, I don't worry about our next president being boring. Instead, I look for poise, and its complement, tact, when judging the candidates. Thoughtfulness and balance, the ability to inspire and the capacity to work productively with others will be crucial qualities for our next president. For our sake, they'd better be.