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Mitt Romney and the 7 Characteristics of Charismatic Leadership
By | 10/07/2012 7:27PM | LEADERSHIP LESSONS

Can a Charisma Deficit Reveal Underlying Weaknesses in Leadership?


Mitt Romney’s charisma deficit will be his ultimate undoing. But it’s not as simple or superficial as some people think. Ultimately, charismatic leadership is a relationship with followers. And it’s a relationship that reveals volumes about who the leaders are and what they represent.

  1. Charismatic Leaders are Authentic.  Whether ethical or unethical, virtuous or wicked, dictatorial or democratic—charismatic leaders stand for something.  There is not a charismatic leader in the history of the world that did not take a clear stand for their beliefs.  The sad fact about Romney is that the only thing he stands for is what he thinks his audience wants to hear in the moment.  He doesn’t have a consistent, coherent story and, as a result, he comes off as duplicitous and insincere.  Not only does that kill his charisma, but it also calls into question his ability to lead.  It would be okay, if he changed his mind slowly, over time, as he grew and learned (John Maynard Keynes nailed an important truth of enlightened leaders when he said: “When I get new information, I change my position. What, sir, do you do with new information?”).  But it is not okay, to change your beliefs and values to suit your audience, your donors or the mood of the moment.  (See The Young Turks video.)
  2. Charismatic Leaders are Supportive.  Charismatic leaders do not have to be supportive of everyone.  They don’t even have to be supportive of a lot of people (unless you’re running for president, Mr. Romney—then it means much more than 47%).  But they absolutely have to be exceptionally supportive of their followers.  Charisma is an emotional bond and the only way to build that bond is to make your followers feel like you really care about them—deeply.  Yet, Romney does not seem to care about anyone but himself and his own economic interests.  In fact, right now he seems to be leading the party of “me” while charismatic leaders are the party of “we” (see Clinton’s convention speech). Regardless of whether or not you think extreme libertarianism or unbridled corporate capitalism makes sense politically, it’s not a strong formula for fostering a charismatic bond.  In a nutshell, Ayn Rand’s philosophy of selfishness is inherently anti-charismatic.  Even the great charismatic dictators made a mass of followers believe they cared about them.
  3. Charismatic Leaders are Inspirational.  Think of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, or John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, or even Ronald Reagan’s campaign theme, “It’s morning in America again.”  What ties all of these messages together is that they were deeply inspirational.  Mitt Romney’s message is anything but inspirational.  In fact, like the majority of Republicans in Washington today (and nearly all of the Tea Party conservatives), Romney talks way more about what he wants to tear down and destroy rather than what positive things he wants to build up and develop.  Put simply: you can’t lead the “party of no” and expect to foster a charismatic relationship with followers.  Charismatic leaders present an inspiring vision of the future.  Every time they speak, they are full of hope and optimism (at least for their people).  Sure, we absolutely must reduce the federal deficit and eliminate failed or wasteful government programs, but if you want to foster charisma then you have to focus (in your work, not just your words—that goes for you too, Mr. President) on how this is going to make the country bigger, better, healthier, richer and stronger, not smaller, sicker, poorer, weaker or worse.
  4. Charismatic Leaders are Eloquent and Articulate. Romney can be fairly articulate, but let’s face it: Romney’s speeches are lifeless and lackluster and his delivery lacks the easy, poised and passionate confidence of a charismatic orator (Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt come to mind ).  Clearly, he needs a new speech writer, but he also needs to work on his delivery.  His hesitancy betrays his lack of sincerity.   His first debate performance was a marked improvement.  But he still came off as cold and bossy, rather than likable and empathic—not exactly a formula for charisma.   
  5. Charismatic Leaders are Revolutionary.Frankly, Barack Obama has proven not to be much of a revolutionary himself, though many of his supporters naively thought he was back in 2008.  Why?  Because he kept advocating and promising change.  And sometimes, when the current situation is so bad, anything different is good, even if it is vague platitudes about hope and change (He did win the presidency after all.  Unfortunately, in the face of fierce opposition, he lacks the will and courage to carry the fight through to real change).  But a true revolutionary fosters charisma, in part, because they represent something new, perhaps something risky and unproven, but something exciting nonetheless.  Perhaps Romney scores a few points on this dimension for his extreme, Ayn-Rand-like ideas about brutal selfishness as a philosophy of governance (not exactly the “we the people” foundation of our republic), but, let’s be honest, for the most part Romney is the leader of the plutocratic status quo.  If that wasn’t the truth, he wouldn’t be where he is today.  His campaign is almost completely financed by the super rich and Wall Street elites.  And what do those groups represent?  Why, the status quo, of course.  They want things to stay exactly the same, because they are living on top of the world.  They support Romney because he promises to keep things as they are: a once-democratic nation where the rich rule and the middle class is increasingly squeezed out of existence (don’t be so naïve to believe what Romney says in one speech or one debate—look for the patterns).  Unfortunately for Romney, that status quo is anything but revolutionary.  And, thus, another black-charisma-hole for Mitt.
  6. Charismatic Leaders have a Compelling Shared Vision.  Does Romney even have a vision? Seriously.  I recently criticized Obama for lacking vision (see video) as well.  So, the way I see it, they both have serious charisma deficits on this dimension.  But make no mistake, vision is absolutely critical to charismatic leadership.  In fact, vision is critical to leadership.  And so, both Romney and Obama, like every other politician in Washington, may be attracting voters, but they are not leading people.
  7. Charismatic Leaders are Exceptionally Self-Confident. To understand this dimension as another major deficit for Romney you have to understand the difference between arrogance and confidence.  Arrogance is grounded in feelings of superiority, which is nothing but deep inner feelings of inferiority.  If Romney was truly confident in himself he wouldn’t feel compelled to constantly assert his superiority over others (remember the 47% comment?).  People who constantly try to show how they are better than others are usually struggling internally with deep feelings of their own inadequacy.  It’s the old, “hurting people, hurt people” maxim.   This is where Bill Clinton (probably the most charismatic man alive today, with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela), trumps lightweight charismatics like Obama and Sarah Palin.  Clinton is exceptionally self-confident, but he doesn’t think he is better than anyone else.  In fact, Clinton loves people too much to even flirt with an attitude of superiority.  The only possible “out” for Romney on this one is that it is really the appearance of self-confidence that matters for charisma.  But I don’t mean that superficially—people really have to believe the leader is self-confident for charisma to take hold.  And, actually, small leaks that reveal a slight lack of self-confidence, can be endearing if they are rare.  Self-confidence is critical to charisma, but it’s not about being perfect.

Sadly, most of Mitt Romney’s supporters simply support him because they don’t like President Obama, not because they love Mitt Romney. Governor Romney’s biggest problem is that he lacks charisma. Unfortunately, for Romney, as the above analysis clearly asserts, it’s a problem with deep roots.




"My strong point is not rhetoric, it isn't showmanship,
it isn't big promises-those things that create the glamour
and the excitement that people call charisma and warmth."
-Richard Nixon


Notes and Bibliography

"Charisma is the result of effective leadership,
not the other way around."
-Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus

 




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