A leadership transition is scheduled in two major autocracies this year. Neither is likely to be a surprise. Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (習近平) is set to replace Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and Russian Prime Minister 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. French President Nicolas Sarkozy faces a difficult re-election campaign, as does US President Barack Obama.
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, a US 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 chief executive 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 former 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.
Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, lamented that he lacked charisma. That was true of his relations with the public, but Johnson could be magnetic — even overwhelming — in personal contacts. One careful study of presidential rhetoric found that even such famous orators as former US presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan could not count on charisma to enact their programs.
Charisma is more easily identified after the fact. In that sense, the concept is circular. It is like the old Chinese concept of the “mandate of heaven”: emperors were said to rule because they had it and when they were overthrown, it was because they had lost it.
However, no one could predict when that would happen. Similarly, success is often used to prove — after the fact — that a modern political leader has charisma. It is much harder to use charisma to predict who will be a successful leader.
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 regard former British prime minister Winston Churchill as a charismatic leader in 1939, but, a year later, his vision, confidence and communication skills gave him charisma, given Britons’ anxiety after the fall of France and the Dunkirk evacuation. And then, in 1945, after the public’s focus had turned from winning the war to constructing a welfare state, Churchill was voted out of office. His charisma did not predict defeat; the change in followers’ needs did.