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Professor John Rouse "WHAT IS CHARISMA?"

Charisma is not the objective assessment by followers of the leader's ability to meet followers' specific needs. It is a means by which people abdicate responsibility for any consistent, tough-minded evaluation of the outcome of specific policies.

Citizens put their trust in their leader, who will somehow take care of things. Charisma requires some psychological distance between leader and follower. Immediate superiors exist in the work-a-day world of constant, objective feedback and evaluation. Day-to-day intimacy destroys illusion.

Charismatic leaders are sufficiently distant from ordinary folks. A simplified and magical image is possible. Adherents and opponents react emotionally to charismatic personalities. The leader's portrait is global and not discriminating. Specific weaknesses are overlooked in the great leader.

In the life and death of former President Ronald Reagan, large numbers of people became "charisma hungry." This pressing need occurs in historical conditions in which religion wanes. Fear, anxiety, and existential dread result in the emergence of charismatic leaders.

War, globalization, unemployment, demise of family, church, and civility bring on feelings of fear and apprehension. Conditions of fear produce continuing symptoms of anxiety. Citizenry distresses result in existential dread. People experience circumstances in which the rituals of their human existence become significantly impaired.

The charismatic leader, under such conditions, may offer meaning and provide followers with a greater sense of community. In offering salvation from fear, anxiety, and existential dread, the charismatic leader creates new forms of safety, identity, and rituals. Crisis is important to the emergence of charismatic leadership. The charismatic leader, by virtue of unusual personal qualities, promises hope of salvation.

German sociologist Max Weber is the original guru on charisma. Weber analyzed the functions and exercise of power.

First, laws and traditional taboos of the particular culture or society need to be bypassed, abolished, or otherwise overcome. Laws, rules, regulations, customs, mores, taboos, routines, and certain ascribed standards must be circumvented. These traits are considered rational--grounded in prescribed ways of acting and behaving.

Second, Weber identified charisma, or individual leadership, as largely emotional. Referred to as the cult of personality, charisma is thought to be irrational. The charismatic personality goes against the grain of how issues confronting the organization, or country, should be handled, dealt with, brokered, and accepted.

Finally, the people, citizens, employees, followers, believers, converts, and masses must carry out the new edicts, laws, and policies of the organization, or government. A new rationality is established on the recently established cult of personality. Followers want to be persuaded, not coerced, into implementing dictates of the new realities.

Charisma is not merely the appearance of a dynamic, excited, motivated, committed, passion-filled person. Charismatic persons persuade followers to change their old ways of responding to the country's challenges and problems. Citizens, as followers, are to act in creative, determined, sustained, and new ways to accomplish tasks assigned to the "wars" of the charismatic leader.
    
The great man or woman arrives on the scene or comes from the ranks of common people. The charismatic leader dominates decision making regardless of the logic of his or her positions.

Followers abandon rational thinking and follow the new leader, perhaps a Pied Piper, into an unknown future. In democracies, however, followers are often educated --and not easily seduced.
   
Why do many Americans view former President Reagan as charismatic?

He forged a bipartisan coalition with Democrats, who controlled Congress. He promoted the largest tax and budget cuts in U.S. history. He reduced double-digit inflation to 3-5 percent. He outspent the Soviet Union into a military waste land.

Previous presidents failed to boost the economy or budge the Soviets. Reagan was charismatically successful at both. The teflon Reagan avoided being blamed for the mistakes of his subordinates. Record budget deficits, an inability to reduce poverty and hard-core unemployment, weak U.S. leverage in the Middle East and Central America, and Iran-Contra affair did not dent the popular image of the teflon President.

What mattered is that the charismatic, populist Reagan redefined U.S. domestic priorities and wiped out the evil empire. Nothing else was of consequence. 

Professor John Rouse

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