Thursday, November 6, 2008


The meteoric political rise of Barack Obama has got me thinking about how some people rise to power, and others don't.

What I've mostly come up with is that, in general, people are just people. People are mostly the same the world over, and they are mostly good. The world is more good than bad, and mostly everybody is just trying to get by. The minority who isn't so good, however, is vastly over-represented among politicians and political types.

My experience has been that great men and women are not all that smart (perhaps smarter than average, but not smarter than average among the elites that they generally come from), and are not motivated by altruism, any intellectual agenda, or even ideology. They are almost never motivated by what they say they are motivated by, which is, or should be, a red flag early on.

There are some who are born and raised to greatness (George Bush is a pretty good example, as was Franklin Roosevelt and Jack Kennedy), others who achieve greatness through sheer ambition (Barack Obama, Bill Clinton), and still others who achieve greatness through random luck and chance (Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower). The last category, and the largest, is those who achieve greatness through steady, consistent effort (Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, perhaps Reagan).

A lot of it is about energy. Read the biographies of great men and very often you will find they existed with minimal rest, striving through the night while others were asleep. Often what makes people great is they simply try harder. In all most all cases you will find that great people try very hard.

Just trying hard will not make you great, however. There are plenty of people who strive endlessly yet remain obscure or mediocre. Some of those obscure and mediocre hard workers are a lot smarter than the famous and powerful politicians. Just being smart and working hard isn't enough either.

Several years ago I was talking about this factor with a somewhat great man (a political appointee in the Reagan and both Bush administrations). We were discussing another friend, who was nominated for a higher position. My friend reflected that a lot of political success had to do with "command presence", as he termed it, an intangible quality of leadership that inspires "followership".

I've heard a lot about leadership over the years: what it is, who has it, how you develop it, how you practice it. There are a lot of things anyone can do to be a good leader: pay attention and listen to your subordinates, be firm, fair, and consistent, communicate conscientiously, set a good example. But there are intangible qualities in some leaders that inspire followership regardless of the "by the book" traits. A lot of that is what my friend meant by "command presence".

Barack Obama seems to have a huge quotient of this intangible quality. My experience with John McCain was that he didn't have much of it, although he was pretty diligent about practicing the conventional tenets of leadership. I think this may be a very sigificant factor.

Unfortuantely, history (and the military, from what I've seen) is chock full of guys who were really bad leaders but had phenomenal command presence. Adolph Hitler is the guy who comes most immediately to mind because there is plenty of film of him, but I expect many other notorious historical figures were similar.

In contrast, not all Presidents have this intangible quality, although more have it than don't. Ronald Reagan had loads of it, but he was an actor, and I'm convinced it's a lot about acting. It's also a lot about charisma, which is a pretty in tangible quality as well. JFK and Eisenhower had it, although they were very different and had very different styles. Jimmy Carter had very little, Nixon didn't seem to have much, Ford seemed to have more than Carter or Nixon, and George HW Bush had very, very little of it. I get the impression that George W. Bush has more than his father, but not as much as Eisenhower or JFK, much less Reagan. FDR had lots, and I'm fuzzy on Truman. He was so modest that it was hard to tell, but I still suspect he had quite a bit.

So, reflecting on history, it would seem that this intangible quality of charismatic leadership is a powerful advantage for those who would be powerful. It can be used for good or ill, and it's totally separate from the individuals character or qualities as a human being. You can be the worst monster in history and have stunning command presence, and get people to commit genocide on your behalf. Or you can use that power to help make the world a better place.

I don't think we have any idea how the new President-elect will govern. Is he driven by a desire to improve the world and help people, or by a desire to accrue power and wield it to massage his own ego? I surely have no idea, although among politicians I've noted about 10% in the "help the world" category and about 90% in the "egomaniacal" category. And you surely can't tell by what they say or their public personae, because the most egomaniacal are also usually the best actors. (The great exception of all time to this maxim is Ronald Reagan.)

What I've seen is that the best politicians are the one who never let their guard down, who never let their real personality or their real feelings show through the mask. That makes judging them really darned tricky.

So my point is that I have no idea what we can expect for the next few years. My unscientific analysis suggests that the more charismatic the President, the more likely he is to be re-elected (and that simple rule applies to almost all other positions of leadership as well). Real humanity and honesty are liabilities among politicians, which is unfortunate for us ordinary folk. But the better the politician, the harder it is to tell what kind of person they really are, and currently we're dealing with one of the best natural talents that I've ever seen.

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