Communicating with Charisma Takes the White House


“Lend me some more of that famous charisma, Slick Willy!”

The race for the White House is turning into a battle between the charisma “have” and the “have-not.” So the outcome should be a no-brainer, right?


Wrong. No one can seem to call it right. President Barack Obama told the Democratic National Convention: “Now you have a choice.” But is the choice between personalities, or policies? Is it a choice not so much of rival narratives or rival visions of the future, but of rival energies we admire in greater or lesser degree?

I’m not a political pundit, or even an American. I’ve been bawled out often enough to know not to step into domestic issues. So the only thing going for me is to take a completely different look at the US election process. Instead of the policy issues, the ideology, the party loyalty,  the campaign fundraising, the tribal stuff,  I want you to look at the elections as a massive exercise in personality pitching through the agency of charismatic communication. For a moment, forget the content and focus instead on the communication style and the way we’re affected by candidates. Or, forget the ‘what’ of the leadership storytelling and focus on the ‘how’ and especially the ‘why’ instead. When it comes to charisma, it’s contact, not content, that is king.

If you reach the bottom of this article, there’s methodology for mapping and measuring charisma in communication.

The nature of charisma and the electoral dividends it can pay is so complex that right now it’s hard to tell which of the two US presidential candidates, Barack Obama or Mitt Romney,  possesses the kind of appeal that will make the critical difference on polling day.

In fact the two men appear like twins separated at birth. Each possesses charisma attributes of which the other is in urgent political need. Each exhibits a “black hole” in one segment of his personality that negatively  impacts his voter appeal. As the world watches, these doppleganger twins are clasped in a terrible embrace. And the polls seem to agree.

Dogged, can-do Mitt Romney sets his sail by the prevailing wind of party opinion and wins through by energy and drive, despite being seemingly devoid of empathy, lacking in community spirit — and having a tin ear for values and vision. As a consultant who hires armies of consultants to help him decide which focus group to follow, Romney’s un-electric profile is in constant danger of being upstaged by his vice presidential running-mate, Paul Ryan.

Incumbent president Obama, meanwhile, can reel out soaring speeches with vision and values in spades; and has still empathy to make a stadium full of skeptical soccer-moms swoon by starting his nomination address with a profession of love for First Lady and First Family.

Obama told his convention to have hope: “hope – not blind optimism or wishful thinking, but hope in the face of difficulty; hope in the face of uncertainty; that dogged faith in the future which has pushed this nation forward, even when the odds are great; even when the road is long.”

Yet when it comes to the assertiveness and raw ambition that transforms adverse events, or having the drive and vitality to crush or outflank opponents, Obama could do with a helping of Romney’s Mormon cussedness.

For Romney — who survived and thrived in the testosterone-filled shark tank called Bain & Company — empathy and vision are the “missing link.” For Obama — who cut his teeth with community groups and post-grad students — drive, assertiveness and killer determination are surely the “missing link” keeping him from being a shoo-in for another four years in the White House.

Pollsters and pundits alike are puzzled at how such an uneven contest could turn out to be, well, just so even. Either voters are finally taking notice of issues rather than (as they always have) making their choice based on personalities. Or — most likely — something really interesting is going on with the unique chemistry of political charisma on offer from the two candidates.

I posit that it’s the latter and to understand it, we need to dig into the anatomy of charisma. How it works, who it works on, and how politicians who really understand charisma can deliver a balanced message that will get them where they want to be. Read on and I’ll tell you about the Seven Dimensions of Charisma that every political leader (and every businessman too) needs to master.

The Economist magazine pointed out in an editorial “were he facing a more charismatic candidate than Mitt Romney or a less extremist bunch than the Republicans, Mr Obama would already be staring at defeat.” But he isn’t. Even after the Party conventions have been and gone after Labor Day, the political see-saw remained evenly matched with a statistical tie in the popular vote and a slender advantage to the Democrats in the electoral college.

So it’s not only Romney who faces a “charisma deficit.” Obama is missing something in terms of a killer punch too — which is exactly why he called on his old enemy Bill Clinton to shore things up for him at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, NC. In a barnstorming speech that summoned all his 360 degree, gigawatt charisma, Clinton cloaked Obama with his mantle.

The New York Times’ Andrew Rosenthal  swooned: “Watching Bill Clinton take the stage at the Democratic National Convention and take over the room with his first few, simple words – “We are here to nominate a President and I’ve got one in mind” – was like watching a great violinist follow a group of gifted amateurs. His commanding presence, his let’s-just-chat manner, the familiar sound of his southern growl were the perfect counterpoint to the Republican Party’s assault on President Obama at its convention in Tampa last week.”

It’s an oddity that the Republican National Convention also brought in a senior statesman and charisma-packed elder of the tribe to lay his “Magnum Force” at the feet of GOP candidate Mitt Romney at the event in Tampa. The Republicans’ enforcer was Clint Eastwood, whose bizarre mimed interview with an empty chair representing an absent president Obama, raised embarrassed laughs and suggestions the highly-respected actor’s political persona might now be named “Dotty Harry.”

So; what is it that Clinton has that Obama needs so badly? And what is that Eastwood has that Romney needs? In both cases, they need a holistic, full-spectrum approach to presenting a rounded public persona that fills all the spaces on the emotional map we use to recognize truly satisfying leaders.

Let’s start with Mitt Romney.

In its August 25th cover article, The Economist warned that the Republican “has many factors in his favour. But to win the presidency Mitt Romney will have to reinvent himself once again—this time as a likeable, sympathetic guy.”

The proof? Electors whose greatest pain is a flat-lining US economy, believe he’ll be better at running the US economy –  but they still don’t want to vote for Romney.  A Wall Street Journal/NBC Poll lays it out pretty starkly.  People find Obama “more easygoing and likeable.” Another poll, by YouGov for the Economist, found 39% of respondents said they liked Romney as a person, while 57% liked Obama. Only 34% of people said they thought Romney cared about them, compared to 48% for Obama. In other words, people’s voting intentions are completely driven by subjective factors.

What have people got against Romney, if his team is really so much better at economic management than Obama? After all, both Clinton and Obama admit that the main thing that can be said about the last four years is “it could have been a lot worse.”

He’s wooden, he’s dogged, he lacks flair, his approach to issues is inconsistent. He doesn’t betray where his own instincts and values really lie. He will, says the Economist: “Struggle to win the election unless he  does a better job of selling himself personally.”

Anyone who has watched a mid-to-late period Clint Eastwood movie, such as Million Dollar Babe, Bridges of Madison County, Unforgiven, or Flags of our Fathers will know that the director and actor is a master of empathy and sensitivity to group dynamics. A man so secure in the supremely masculine roles he carved  out earlier in his career with High Plains Drifter, the Good, the Bad and The Ugly – and of course Dirty Harry, that he can afford to show catlike, feminine levels of sensitivity.

It wasn’t the Magnum Force, but the tenderness and bittersweet love of America’s enduring values that Romney needed from Clint in Tampa. The problem was, that Clint didn’t oblige him.

Now it’s Obama’s turn.

It’s hard to gainsay the fact that Obama has failed to pass the most basic test of an incumbent President seeking re-election: that people should think anything other than that he has done a good enough job to merit re-election. Voters only start thinking about a challenger is they are queasy about the incumbent’s record, in which case his approval rating drops below 50%.

Look at the message that both Obama and Bill Clinton have been sending out on the state of the economy: “Bad with Obama – but much much worse without him!” The whole argument is one of justifying poor performance, based on appalling external circumstances left behind by George W Bush. Now that’s a substantive issue upon which some people may be equipped to judge, but most (and that includes economists) aren’t. They’ll make the judgement on personality.

Voters can’t argue the toss on how weak the economy was four years ago. They can barely remember how things were when it was George W. Bush in charge.  But they can argue the toss on how weak or indecisive the president looks.

Which is exactly why Obama needed the aura that Bill Clinton’s street-fighter charisma at the Charlotte convention? Love him or hate him, Clinton has guts, determination, and the ability to sense when it’s time to  lay the first punch before a bar-room fight actually begins.  Clinton’s survival through the Monica Lewinsky and impeachment episodes show he was a far more resilient figure than Obama. While Obama has lived with a lowering partisan climate for four years, Clinton endured eight years of outright war. Compared to Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin was a pussycat.

Drive, determination and vigor, matched with steely ambition, achievement and assertiveness are what Americans are looking for in a president to boost their country — which is why they are prepared to look at a flawed figure like Romney.

Seven Dimensions of Political Charisma

So far, I’ve given what looks to be a subjective and rather opinionated pen-portrait of two leaders and their personalities. In fact, behind the views lies a deeper approach to the nature of charisma and how it drives communication and the qualities of leaders.

The qualities I outlined in the personalities of  Obama and Romney are not exclusive to them. In fact they are archetypal, universal qualities that everyone shares in unequal measure.

In fact I have defined what I call the Seven Dimensions of Charisma. These are based on behaviour patterns that are visible in systems stretching back millenia, such as the Seven Hermetic Principles. During the 2012  London Olympics I blogged about how athletes show  these characteristics — and how only true champions  can deliver a “full-spectrum” charisma that  embraces the positive aggression needed to cross the tape first, the community spirit needed for team games, and the empathy neccessary to  be  taken into the hearts of fans.

I’ve created a seven dimension model that’s easily memorable (Think A-B-C-D-E-V-V) and describes a 360 degree set of leadership attributes. And in the table below I show how each of those dimensions helps a leader fulfil his role. The first column (Leadership Attributes) defines each dimension.  The second column (Role) shows where the charisma dimension is  deployed in the  leader’s political persona. The third column (Political Application) shows where it comes out in his discourse.

And — most importantly — what happens if a leader over-emphasizes one particular facet of charisma to the  exclusion of others. After all, we all know that dictators, master-criminals and psychotics can be extremely charismatic. We need to be able to detect  and catalogue the limiting factors in their communication style. So the fourth column (Limiting Factors) you’ll see what can happen if you have too much of one dimension.

Ideally, each of us should have an evenly-matched representation of each of the seven A-B-C-D-E-V-V Dimensions. As we’ve seen with the US presidential  contenders, too much of one dimension  usually means not enough of  another vital  ingredient elsewhere in the leadership mix.

Anyway, I’ll leave you with three grids that set out the Seven Dimensions of Charisma. And then a somewhat cheeky Report Card for both Obama and Romney. Of course there will plenty of  readers who’ll object to this treatment. On grounds of disrespect, or that it trivialises the serious issues behind an American Election. I’ll just say: If you’ve read this far, then I’ve got your attention! Hopefully you will come to agree with me that a presidential election is a ultimately battle of charisma, as much as a policy joust.

Seven Dimensions of Political Charisma

Dimension Leadership Attributes Role Political Application Limiting Factors
  1. A.    Self-esteem

 

(AAA) = Ambition, Achievement and Admiration. High levels of self-actualisation through confidence and independence ‘Get up and Go’ Motivator Relationships and party ideology Steamroller politics not sensitive to consensus
  1. B.    Beliefs
(B) = Belief in the power to articulate dreams that nourish our spiritual needs. Strong energy of intent to create new realities. Source of inspiration and non-partisan facilitator National pride and patriotism. Messianic, lacks consideration of others’ needs
  1. C.    Group Behavior

 

(CCC) = Interaction with social customs of Community, Clan and Company. Instinctive understanding of tribal or group dynamics. National Integration and Teambuilding Teamwork and cohesive culture Poll-driven, opportunist, lacks principles
  1. D.    Drive

 

(DDV) = Drive, Dynamism and Vitality. Positive aggression or assertiveness displays contagious passion and commitment. Crisis-to-Growth Director. Political point-scorer ‘Make it happen’ assertiveness to create the political weather Aggressive, nasty point-scoring. Unhearing, uncaring.
  1. E.    Empathy
(EQ) = Emotional intelligence and open-hearted intimacy creates powerful bonds of mutual understanding with interlocutors Relationship role-model Voter sympathy Emotionally cloying, flip-flop prone. Opportunist and poll-driven.
V1. Values (V1) = Commitment to principles and service for others generates trust. Transmits sense of security and appropriateness for environment. Mentor or coach operating above  partisan lines Patriotic appeal across partisan divide Mood can offend diversity, multicultural electorate
V2. Vision (V2) = Builder, planner and architect of future possibilities. Ability to communicate what is “over the horizon.” Role model for multi-term leadership based on nation-building Innovation and Creativity. “Articulate the Dream.” Empty Rhetoric, words not deeds.

Scoring: We attribute two Charisma points for each Dimension, meaning that a fully balanced score of 14 for a “full spectrum” politician would be equally divided between each category. More, or less than 2 points in any Dimension indicates a personality limitation that potentially affects the way a leader is seen. Too much — or too little — in any dimension creates an unbalanced approach.

Political Charisma Report Card for Barack Obama

Dimension Leadership Attributes Performance Score (Total 14 – ideal is 2 for each category)
  1. A.    Self-esteem

 

(AAA) = Ambition, Achievement and Admiration. High levels of self-actualisation through confidence and independence Huge investment in Obamacare blighted rest of his political agenda. 0
  1. B.    Beliefs
(B) = Belief in the power to articulate dreams that nourish our spiritual needs. Strong energy of intent to create new realities. His greatest gift – and Achilles heel. Soaring rhetoric can be hard to stomach 3
  1. C.    Group Behavior

 

(CCC) = Interaction with social customs of Community, Clan and Company. Instinctive understanding of group dynamics. Embraces communities including minorities, women, etc 2
  1. D.    Drive

 

(DDV) = Drive, Dynamism and Vitality. Positive aggression or assertiveness displays contagious passion and commitment. Became victim of gridlock, and congressional opposition 0
  1. E.    Empathy
(EQ) = Emotional intelligence and open-hearted intimacy creates powerful bonds of mutual understanding with interlocutors Mobilising and divisive figure who dares to dream – and this upsets as many as it unites 2
V1. Values (V1) = Commitment to principles and service for others generates trust. Transmits sense of security and appropriateness for environment. Projects his principled belief in  big government. Not all like this. 2
V2. Vision (V2) = Builder, planner and architect of future possibilities. Ability to communicate what is “over the horizon.” Head in clouds is opposite of feet on the ground. 3

Political Charisma Report Card for Mitt Romney

Dimension Leadership Attributes Performance Score (Total 14 – ideal is 2 for each category)
  1. A.    Self-esteem

 

(AAA) = Ambition, Achievement and Admiration. High levels of self-actualisation through confidence and independence High. Strong drive  and positive aggression in business and politics 4
  1. B.    Beliefs
(B) = Belief in the power to articulate dreams that nourish our spiritual needs. Strong energy of intent to create new realities. Mormon faith presents confusing and divisive picture. 1
  1. C.    Group Behavior

 

(CCC) = Interaction with social customs of Community, Clan and Company. Instinctive understanding of tribal or group dynamics. Low level of empathy with US society 0
  1. D.    Drive

 

(DDV) = Drive, Dynamism and Vitality. Positive aggression or assertiveness displays contagious passion and commitment. Positive “fix the economy” approach is his trump card 4
  1. E.    Empathy
(EQ) = Emotional intelligence and open-hearted intimacy creates powerful bonds of mutual understanding with interlocutors Romney’s Achilles heel. Shows little sympathy or ability to relate to the “have-nots.” 1
V1. Values (V1) = Commitment to principles and service for others generates trust. Transmits sense of security and appropriateness for environment. Opportunist approach to politics leaves a clouded view of what he truly values 1
V2. Vision (V2) = Builder, planner and architect of future possibilities. Ability to communicate what is “over the horizon.” Weak. GOP Convention left us knowing little of what a Romney America would be like. 1

Richard House