Sunday, January 13, 2008

Charisma: The Chameleon That Always Seeks Sunlit Mountain Tops

It tantalizes us. It provokes us, this perplexing leadership trait called “charisma”. At the same time, we crave it and we fear it, as we do not want to lose our critical judgment or look silly. We also wish we could have more of it for ourselves as the media reminds us over and over again---people love it.

Barack Obama has struck a chord deep in the American psyche. It’s about being tired of living with the tyranny of fear that has permeated our daily lives particularly since 9/11. Fear is not uplifting. Fear puts the wrong hormones into our already over stressed bodies. Fear is a downer. Fear makes us go within ourselves. Retreat from hope and community.

Apparently gospel singer Mahalia Jackson shouted out at least twice to Martin Luther King when he was deep into a “nightmare” speech in front of a throng of thousands on August 28, 1963, in Washington, D.C.: “Tell them about your dream, Martin.” This roused King from his fears (“America has given the Negro people a bad check….”) to “I have a dream…” which resonates to this day. We prefer sunlit mountain tops to the valley of darkness. It is in our nature.

There is much to do as all politicians and ordinary folks know. The middle class in both the United States and Canada is shrinking. The gap between the haves and the have nots is widening. Statistics Canada recently reported that the earned income of the “average” Canadian---the median income--- was the same in 2004 as in 1982. While the Canadian economy grew in real per capita terms by more than half, it is only the very well-paid---those above the 90th percentile of the income distribution that experienced increases in earned income. The same trends exist in the United States but not quite as starkly: Between 1975 and 2005, median family income in the U.S increased by only 28 per cent while the economy grew by 86 per cent. The average earnings of the highest 1 per cent of the U.S. pyramid rose 160 per cent between 1975 and 2005. The income of the top tenth of 1 per cent soared 350 per cent. Top CEOs in both countries now make 200+ times as much as the average worker. This does not make for peaceful and prosperous community-building.

The reasons are complicated. Decisions made by leaders on both sides of the border have mattered. More tolerance of a “winner take all” environment over the past 30 years coupled with massive manufacturing job losses linked to the rise of China and India, according to numerous analysts, have contributed to our era of discontent.

With progress not matching our expectations for overall community well being, the time is ripe for the enlightened and the good side of charisma anywhere particularly one that unites instead of divides. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King were all well aware that positive change is not possible through fighting. Barack Obama through his record of community development and his “audacity of hope” messages now brings that approach to today’s volatile and complex social and political environment.

While charisma of the right kind beckons, in the end the true measure is getting the right things done. This is a tall order and often transcends charisma. Yes, inspiring visions are absolutely critical and finding common ground vital. But that wears thin when little happens.

In this age of wariness about our political leaders, we are always drawn to warmth, caring about others, authenticity, openness to creative thinking, evidenced–based and thoughtful decision making and action. Senator Obama has caught our attention. We can be grateful that he has re-ignited those very positive emotions that have been subdued or buried since 9/11.

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