Charismatic and Transformational Leadership Essay

Pages: 5 (1605 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: 5  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: Master's  ·  Topic: Leadership

Charismatic and Transformative Leadership

The challenges of transformative leadership:

President Obama's campaign -- and afterwards

Even President' Obama's harshest critics admit that his 2008 campaign for the White House mobilized a new generation of young people to become involved in politics. It also encouraged many jaded older Americans to participate in an electoral process they felt had excluded them. Obama's campaign has been said to truly embody the principles of transformative rather than transactional leadership. Transformative leadership appeals to the citizenry's sense of selflessness rather than selfishness (Yukl 2006:249). "President Obama also showed us that disconnected individuals with a common vision could coalesce into a formidable force. His life and his words inspired millions of previously uninvolved Americans to enter the political arena and stand up for what they believed. But, despite what many people think, inspiration is not his greatest gift. President Obama's real strengths are not only to inspire, but also to inform and transform" (Taylor 2009).

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Transactional leadership is fundamentally based upon a give-and-take exchange between those who lead and those who are led. In its basest form, it is embodied in political patronage and 'pork,' whereby certain politicians are elected by their constituents because the citizens know that the senator or congressperson will provide them with jobs and try to get federal dollars funneled to the district. The good of the nation is not stressed; rather the politician stresses individual self-interest. Charismatic, transformative leadership bases its appeal upon core, shared values and the need to make sacrifices for the common good rather than personal interests.

Essay on Charismatic and Transformational Leadership Assignment

Obama's use of his charisma was particularly evident in the Democratic primaries, in which he stressed his status as an outsider and a relatively young freshman Senator for Illinois, in contrast to the political dynasty embodied by Hillary Clinton. Clinton was widely criticized for advertisements that many thought had covert racial subtexts, such as one which asked viewers if they would want Obama or Clinton picking up the presidential 'crisis' phone in the middle of the night. Clinton also stressed her status as a 'regular' person who bowled and placed white, working-class values at the top of her agenda, appealing to the interests of specific segments of the traditional Democratic electorate. In contrast, Obama's campaign was far broader and more sweeping in nature, and his "yes, we can" philosophy stressed hope and possibility for all Americans.

Even Obama's fundraising efforts were based in the principle of think 'small.' Obama's campaign, by the end of the election cycle in November 2008, was extremely well-funded, allowing him even to buy an extended television 'infomercial.' But small donations, rather than wealthy special interests, encompassed about half of the $745 million the President raised for his 2008 campaign (Hamburger & Gold 2011). However, it should be noted that while "the Obama campaign has not given up on recharging that source of support: A recent email solicitation offered four supporters a chance to have "Dinner with Barack" for as little as a $5 donation," for his 2012 bid, Obama has "increased emphasis on major fundraisers -- including those who gathered money for Hillary Rodham Clinton's competing presidential bid -- [which] carries some risks. While Obama continues to woo supporters at low-dollar fundraisers, his meetings with high rollers -- including a $35,800-a-plate dinner Thursday night with Wall Street executives in a posh Manhattan restaurant -- could undercut the image he has tried to craft" (Hamburger & Gold 2011). Sustaining the principles of charismatic leadership can be far more difficult in the current climate of Washington, which often rewards transactional exchanges and a self-interested, survivalist attitude amongst politicians.

The difficulty of transitioning from the transformative approach of the campaign to the more transactional demands of the political environment has occasionally stymied the Obama Administration, some observers believe. For example, part of Obama's transformative presentation of his political message was a stress upon bipartisanship. This allowed Republicans to criticize even Obama's attempts to enact moderate healthcare reforms to benefit all Americans as 'partisan' even though the reforms were very similar to the Republican counter-plan to President Bill Clinton's 1992-1993 proposed healthcare policies. "There's an insatiable appetite for the notion of bipartisanship here, and we allowed that to get ahead of ourselves," Ron Emanuel admitted later (McManus 2009).

Obama's appeal as a leader always lay in his authenticity and his sense of belief in possibility -- possibility for all Americans, not just himself. Transformational leadership theory stresses the distinction between positive and negative forms of charisma (Yukl 2006:259). Negative charismatic types stress the need for followers to identify with the leader and the leader's agenda, rather than with a specific cause or coherent set of moral ideals. While Obama has made an example of his own and his wife's striving for the American dream and overcoming prejudice, he also stresses how his life is reflective of a larger struggle, rather than an example of his specialness and uniqueness. "It's the answer told by lines that stretched around schools and churches in numbers this nation has never seen; by people who waited three hours and four hours, many for the very first time in their lives, because they believed that this time must be different; that their voice could be that difference," he said in his 2008 victory speech.

In this speech in particular, Obama seemed to embody positive transformational and charismatic qualities -- rather than negative charismatic leadership characteristics common to 'cults of personality' leadership. When Obama gave his victory speech on the eve of his election, he honored those who had helped him in the struggle to win the nomination and also a woman whose lifespan encompassed his election to president -- as well as the pre-civil rights era: "And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can."

Positive, affirmative Transformational leadership is strong, and makes a commitment to core values and ideas, such as extending healthcare to all Americans. Positive, transformational leadership is also clear in its communication strategies, but still is able to learn from others within the organization. Obama ran a focused campaign, defined by specific, core values, but was also willing to listen to others, and this is one element that has carried over into his leadership. Obama placed healthcare first on the agenda, even though some Democrats were wary of the volatility of this issue; he decided to go through with the bailout of GM, saving this stalwart organization, but he was also willing to listen to his advisors on issues pertaining to foreign policy. It has been said that Obama deploys a 'calm assertiveness' in the face of crisis. He is not fiery and emotional in the traditional mode of charismatic leaders -- it is his nature to be restrained, yet also to fight for what he believes in. "There is a difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness. One is based on fear (the macho cowboy diplomacy of pre-emptive strikes) and the other is based on confidence (Obama has offered an open hand to the nations of the world.)" (Dowlin 2011).

Some aspects of transformative leadership, however, Obama has not been able to as successfully transfer from the campaign. Critics on the left have argued that transformative leadership's "culture of integrity, openness, and determination" is not reflected in his administration's foreign policy (Taylor 2009). However, the allegation that Obama has not been as inspiring a candidate in office as he was stumping for president may have more to do with his current political context than with a change in personality (Yukl 2006:270). In office, Obama has had to deal with the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. To stabilize the… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Charismatic and Transformational Leadership.  (2011, June 28).  Retrieved April 17, 2021, from

MLA Format

"Charismatic and Transformational Leadership."  28 June 2011.  Web.  17 April 2021. <>.

Chicago Style

"Charismatic and Transformational Leadership."  June 28, 2011.  Accessed April 17, 2021.