Michelle Obama: A Charismatic Leader?

Barbara Kellerman is the James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. For the period 2007–2008, she is ranked by Leadership Excellence as 6th on the list of the 100 "best minds on leadership."

"Mighty Michelle" they called her in London — the president's wife who is taking Europe by storm. Whatever Barack Obama's accomplishments on his first foray as diplomat-in-chief, the First Lady is a hit, a star in her own right, in the limelight.

Comparisons are being made between her and Jacqueline Kennedy, the last woman in this role to have created such a stir. At first blush it's easy to see why. Like Jackie, Michelle is young and vibrant and altogether different from her predecessors. Like Jackie, Michelle is stylish and striking. And like Jackie, Michelle is the wife of a president who seems to herald a new age, who seems a new kind of leader for a new kind of time.

But the similarities end there. Scratch the surface and you'll see in Michelle Obama — even in what she says and does on this trip to Europe — an altogether different kind of First Lady, one who instead of being defined by her husband, defines herself. Unlike Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama speaks out — she is not merely seen but heard. Unlike Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama steps out — she engages even to the point of breaking precedent. And unlike Jacqueline Kennedy, who was remote, impossibly elegant and somehow inaccessible, Michelle Obama is available, ready and able to mix and mingle, willing to touch and be touched, literally and figuratively.

I have suggested before that charismatic leadership — leadership that is genuinely charismatic as opposed to pseudo-charismatic — is rare. Similarly, I have suggested before that charismatic leadership among women is especially rare. Some took me to task for this assertion, citing purported exceptions such Mother Theresa, Princess Diana, and Indira Ghandi.

Setting aside the question of whether these particular women were or were not charismatic leaders, and setting aside the question of why fewer women have been charismatic leaders than men, and, finally, setting aside the question of what separates celebrity from charisma, we can say this: By definition, charismatic leaders have followers who are deeply convinced and passionately committed. By definition, charismatic leaders inspire by who they are and what they convey. And by definition, charismatic leaders meet the moment — that is, they emerge when the time is somehow right, somehow ripe for the message they in particular seek to send.

It's too early to tell, of course. Among other reasons, for the moment she is constrained still by her role, that of First Lady. But seeds are being sown. There is growing evidence that, like her husband, Michelle has a capacity to connect with constituents, both substantively and symbolically. There is growing evidence, in other words, that in the fullness of time Michelle Obama might just be a leader independent of her husband, and a charismatic one at that.

By Susan Jackson  |  April 7, 2009; 9:20 AM ET
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"Scratch the surface and you'll see in Michelle Obama — even in what she says and does on this trip to Europe — an altogether different kind of First Lady, one who instead of being defined by her husband, defines herself." Michelle Robinson married a man who proclaims to be an advocate of equality. She is now (mrs) Barack Obama. Separate but equally Barack Obama. A woman who is not defined by her husband - but simply renamed in his image.

Posted by: vwhitney1 | April 7, 2009 1:25 PM

OF course you can blame business management schools and their course instructors for the financial crisis. How the hell do you think the so called boom from the 1990's to the Bush era lasted as long as it did. It was because it took that long to accumulate a surfeit of debt and leveraging that finally, after ten years, had reached the breaking point, which is exactly where we are now. How stupid of the best sixth rated leadership example to assert otherwise and to try to escape accountability just as she must have taught her own students to do.

Tony Gillotte
Vacaville, CA

Posted by: gillotte43 | April 7, 2009 4:28 PM

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