Saturday, June 20, 2009

Comedian-in-Chief, Fly-Swatter Extraordinaire: Obama Raises the Stakes

I have a cartoon from one of the newspapers showing President Barack Obama responding to a request from Prime Minister Stephen Harper: “Well, I’ll cough on you if you insist, but I don’t think charisma is contagious. Now with additional Obama feats such as swatting a fly successfully within the tenth of a second required and charming the press corps with skillfully delivered good jokes, the bar just keeps rising higher. Harper will need to go to improv school to crack the Obama leadership ceiling.

There’s a spontaneity within President Obama not well-developed in Harper. Comedians know how important that quality is to connect with an audience. That’s why they take improv, or responding and creating in the moment, very seriously. Deep down, it’s a control and trust of oneself issue. Loose or tight. Acting into thinking rather than planning into acting. Tough to do if a leader wants to have everything figured out and never look silly.

Yet, we warm to anyone, let alone a leader, who shows he’s just like us. He has to battle some of the ordinary things in life like swatting annoying flies and not taking life too seriously all the time. When we engage in these day-to-day activities, we don’t always win. The fly gets away because we were not fast enough or the joke goes over “like a lead balloon”.

It could have gone either way for Barack Obama. But, would it have really mattered? Negative results would most certainly have given his critics more reason to doubt his abilities. But, those with a gentler, kinder view would have applauded his efforts because he tried. “No guts, no glory”, as the saying goes.

Plato argued that we are “sitting in a chariot drawn by two horses: reason and passion”. Researchers who study how good decisions are made have found, not surprisingly, that we use both horses to do so. Interestingly, emotions usually lead the way as they make a direct unconscious connection with our actions just as our breathing does. Reason takes a little more work. From an evolutionary perspective, as Joseph LeDoux from New York University describes in The Emotional Brain, connections in our brains from the emotional to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive to the emotional systems.

Given the automatic precedence of emotion over reason in our brains, President Obama has a significant advantage over those leaders who muffle their fun and passionate sides. Like many aspects of leadership, much can be learned. If Prime Minister Harper spent some time with our Second City folks, I’ll bet we’d see a slightly more spontaneous and funny side of him. It would be good for his ratings. His rational, highly competitive nature might just buy into that!

No comments: