Cutting-Edge Leadership

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Charisma and Presidential Success: Lessons from Reagan, Clinton, and Obama

Is Obama a successful President? Why it might not matter.

What do Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama have in common? They all are, or were, extremely charismatic leaders, and they all had remarkably similar elections and early presidential terms: Each rode his charisma and ensuing popularity to fairly decisive election victories. Each faced economic challenges early in his term. And each was subject to high public expectations when he came into office.

The similarities continued past the initial glow: A year and a half into each of their terms, the public was becoming disenchanted. In the mid-term elections, voters voiced their disappointment by shifting toward the opposing party. Could this be the "curse" that charisma brings?

We in the U.S. have a tendency to idolize leaders. Scholar Jim Meindl and his colleagues called this the "Romance of Leadership." We are especially enamored with charismatic leaders. As a result, we get our expectations up - and often they're unreasonable. When Clinton visited Claremont McKenna College, where I teach, one of the students asked him about the differences in his work as president and his current work with his foundation. He answered, "I'm finding out how easy it is to get things done when you are not president." The charisma that worked against Clinton as President is paying big dividends in his post-presidential work.

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I came to this realization about the particularly high expectations we may hold of charismatic leaders when asked to give my mid-term "report card" of Obama's presidency. When focusing only on what he promised, and what he delivered, Obama actually gets pretty high marks. But public perception -- and the polls -- are driven by far more than that.

So perhaps the curse of charisma is that it raises the public's expectations that the leader will create a great transformation, and they are not impressed with small (or even moderate) gains. On the positive side, both Reagan and Clinton were still able to use their charisma to win second terms. The interesting things is that we seem to value charismatic leaders more when they are ex-leaders, than when they are actually leading.

Now that Reagan is gone and Clinton is playing his role of former President, I hear Republicans and Democrats, respectively, yearning for the "Reagan" or "Clinton" years. This seems true of all charismatic leaders - Winston Churchill, Gandhi, Kennedy, all valued more when they are gone than when they were actively leading. If Obama is able to use his charisma, achieve more, and make the voting public more aware of his accomplishments, he may be able to win a second term and a generation from now, some will be yearning for the "Obama years."

The lessons for leaders: Charisma is both a blessing and a curse. Charismatic leaders typically emerge when followers want change, but the leader's charisma raises expectations to perhaps unrealistic levels. Charisma alone won't get it done, if the leader doesn't deliver enough to persuade followers to grant the leader more time.

 

Ronald E. Riggio, Ph.D., is the Henry R. Kravis Professor of Leadership and Organizational Psychology at Claremont McKenna College.

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