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Charisma We Can Believe In

CAMBRIDGE – A leadership transition is scheduled in two major autocracies in 2012. Neither is likely to be a surprise. Xi Jinping is set to replace Hu Jintao as President in China, and, in Russia, Vladimir Putin has announced that he will reclaim the presidency from Dmitri Medvedev. Among the world’s democracies, political outcomes this year are less predictable. Nicolas Sarkozy faces a difficult presidential re-election campaign in France, as does Barack Obama in the United States.

In the 2008 US presidential election, the press told us that Obama won because he had “charisma” – the special power to inspire fascination and loyalty. If so, how can his re-election be uncertain just four years later? Can a leader lose his or her charisma? Does charisma originate in the individual, in that person’s followers, or in the situation? Academic research points to all three.

Charisma proves surprisingly hard to identify in advance. A recent survey concluded that “relatively little” is known about who charismatic leaders are. Dick Morris, an American 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.” Similarly, the business press has described many a CEO as “charismatic” when things are going well, only to withdraw the label when profits fall.

Political scientists have tried to create charisma scales that would predict votes or presidential ratings, but they have not proven fruitful. Among US presidents, John F. Kennedy is often described as charismatic, but obviously not for everyone, given that he failed to capture a majority of the popular vote, and his ratings varied during his presidency.