The Limits of Charisma: The “Sequestration is Dumb” Edition (a.k.a How on God’s Green Earth Did we Get Here)?

Having written about some of the greatest leaders of the 20th century, I have always believed that charisma and leadership have little to do with each other. That idea is hardly new. It has been espoused most eloquently by the late, great Peter Drucker (the “Father of Modern Management”) when I met with him in 2003—as well as in several of his classic books.

Drucker also asserted that charisma, as defined by Merriam Webster as “a special magnetic charm or appeal,” could also be used as a construct to explain the evil influence of some of the worst leaders of the 20th century, like Stalin or Hitler. But, for the sake of this piece, we will use “charisma” to describe a positive leadership trait.

Before moving on, let’s get back to Drucker for a moment. To underscore the difference between leadership and charisma, he wrote: Harry Truman had no more charisma than a dead mackerel,” but accomplished great feats of leadership and legislative victories nonetheless. In contrast, Drucker asserted, “John F. Kennedy was perhaps the most charismatic president of his day, but “few presidents got less done.” I take exception with that characterization, since Kennedy both inspired a generation, and saved the world from a potential nuclear exchange during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Let’s fast forward more than five decades to today’s occupant of the Oval Office. In ways that were similar to JFK, Barack Obama has the gift of oration and charisma, two qualities that helped to get him elected twice. Obama is a gifted and intelligent president. His command of the bully pulpit typifies at least part of what makes a great leader, but only a part. For leaders of states and nations, there is no substitute for authentic leadership and effective legislating. Consider them as two sides of a coin. Opponents of Obama have labeled him the “campaigner in chief,” because whenever a difficult choice must be made by him and the congress, he takes his argument directly to the people, passing “go,” both houses of Congress, and the media in one fell swoop. But presidents must do much more than campaign.

The most effective leaders don’t just talk, they act. They articulate a path forward—a vision of the finish line—and get others to follow; this is true for people they don’t like or who hold different views than themselves…especially those that think differently from themselves. That was the best part of Lincoln—the President (as well as the movie). It is in this regard that Obama has consistently let us down, especially when it comes to the economy. Even though his common sense ideas are almost always more popular than any that emanate in Congress, he still comes up short when it comes to getting others in Congress to follow his lead. Recently Obama has reached out to members of congress by hosting a lunch and a dinner with key members of congress (but not the leaders of either house of congress).

Of course, John Boehner and the other House Republican’s obstructionists (e.g. think Tea Party zealots) have actually made  congress less popular than cockroaches (I kid you not). Their responsibility in sinking the U.S. economy into the sequester quagmire is equal—and even greater—than President Obama’s. Most Americans blame Republicans for hurling us into this mess which according to the government, could easily spark the loss of 750,000 jobs just when the United States was getting on solid ground following the great recession of 2008/2009. One very recent Bloomberg headline summed it up as follows: Congress Budget Cuts Damage U.S. Economy Without Aiding Outlook



And in one way important way, Republicans spoiled the well in a way that Obama will never forget.

Several years back, on the floor of the Senate, Leader Mitch McConnell announced that his main priority was to “make sure that Obama never gets a second term.” That is unprecedented—and politics at its worst.  One would think that creating legislation that leads to a stronger economy and the ending of two wars would rank higher than ridding the White House of its current occupant—or any sitting president for that matter. Think of it. What if one of your colleagues at work said the same thing to the entire company you work for—that getting you fired is his main priority. There is no way that would be tolerated by the leader of that organization. But the 2013 Republican party is both a leaderless and rudderless party. That did not happen overnight. They had to work at it to be so out of touch with the American mainstream.

I view Obama, who boasts a more definitive swagger after his second term win, as a determined prize fighter landing blow after blow on the entire Republican party. Don’t misunderstand me. He did not want this sequester to go into effect, but, as many pundits pointed out, he “miscalculated” by overplaying his hand. He thought that the Republicans would cave again because they could not tolerate the cuts to the Defense Department. Clearly he was wrong. And there are more “cliff-like” moments coming at the end of March and in the ensuing months that follow.

In the early days of March, no one knows what effect the Sequester will have on the economy and the financial markets. That’s because this is an unprecedented event for the U.S. (a self-inflicted $850 billion wound). People in far-away lands are incredulous—they can’t believe that the greatest country on Earth cannot get their fiscal house in order. In light of that, who knows what they will think of us if we are unable to come up with a new budget in the next few months. Stay tuned!!


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