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Sen. Barack Obama was greeted by the largest crowd of his 15-month campaign in Portland Sunday, an estimated 75,000 people, according to Portland Police.

Social theorist Karin Knorr Cetina writes,

“a Weberian would ask what explains why so many Americans feel inspired by Obama to give him unconditional allegiance or switch their allegiance – and not what made Obama into such a magnetic and inspiring leader.”

Theory, Culture & Society 2009, SAGE, Vol 26 (5) 123

It was not my intention to read Austrian sociologist, Karin Knorr Cetina’s article in the Theory Culture and Society (2009), What is a Pipe? Obama and the Sociological Imagination” about Obama and charisma because I didn’t think it was relevant to my work. But I’m glad I did. The issues about charismatic leadership raised by Cetina are relevant to us at all levels – local, regional, national and international.

Most people (I include myself here) have been intrigued by Obama’s popular appeal and wanted to know more about his background and personality to understand his powerful charisma.

It was searching for such clues that led me to read Obama’s autobiography, Dreams from My Father – A story of race and inheritance. However, although I learned a lot about Obama from reading this book, particularly issues around race and identity, I didn’t get a sense of what was really special about him, what made him so successful.

Drawing on the sociology of Max Weber (1864-1920), Cetina cautions that we can miss understanding Obama’s charisma if we focus primarily on his personal traits. We need to focus instead on understanding the devotion of his followers.

She says:

“a Weberian would ask what explains why so many Americans feel inspired by Obama to give him unconditional allegiance or switch their allegiance – and not what made Obama into such a magnetic and inspiring leader.” pg 132

Cetina also draws on research of Rakesh Khurana to show how Weberian theory of charisma is so relevant for contemporary times.

For instance, Khurana noted that when companies are in trouble they have increasingly sought CEOs who are charismatic

“the director should now be the company’s star storyteller, excelling at investor conferences, shareholder presentations and media appearances… pg 132

Khurana wrote a book Searching for a Corporate Savoir: The Irrational Quest for Charismatic CEOs.

As Cetina points out,

“America has reason to seek a corporate savoir, someone who can articulate a vision that promises to address the acute and the long-term geopolitical decline of a dominant nation” pg 133

She notes, as with other charismatic leaders, Obama didn’t need to outline specific policy; rather his vision was of inspirational ideas of “Change!” “Hope!” “Yes we can!” and “Unity!”

Cetina pointed out this worked well because they were what she calls “empty boundary objects” onto which “different groups could project their own concrete hopes for a better future on the signifiers offered” pg 132

Also, according to charisma theory, Obama was chosen by his followers because he was an outsider. “Insiders cannot fit the present charismatic leader model – too much is known about them” pg 134

Of course Obama had to have skills to “inhabit” charismatic leadership and to an extent, continue to “reactivate” this leadership such as through inspiring speeches and the use of technologies (Internet, Facebook, YouTube, cell phones).

What has understanding the success of charismatic leadership got to do with the localities where we live?

In my work (academic and community) I’ve felt increasing disquiet about the number of times I’ve heard people call for a leader – someone who can take charge, someone who “we” can follow, someone will lead us from the wilderness, from the uncertainty, someone who will know what to do, and who will act in our interests …

As is noted with Obama, the hope he can fulfil everyone’s vision is leading to inevitable disappointment. It is tempting to continue to hope Obama will be stronger, or wiser, or see things this way or that. A more realistically hopeful approach, and one I think Obama himself would appreciate, could be to look to the light within ourselves and our own communities – our own lights – and transform the would-be-followers into leaders and blind hope into realistic shared vision of future possibilities, and the networking that can achieve them.

Leaders are faced with unprecedented problems which often leave them and their institutions very stretched and stressed. I think new collaborations that reduce problems to manageable levels would make life easier for leaders such as Obama. What do you think?

I would be interested in your views.

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