Through out the campaign Barack Obama has been back-handedly complimented for his eloquence. According to his political opponents being a charismatic communicator is a strike against Obama in some way. If he speaks well, inspires millions in the U.S. and around the world, and garners the enthusiastic endorsements of artists and entertainers, it is not because he is a leader, but because he is a silver tongued celebrity. Though pundits debate whether it is a positive or negative attribute, most agree that Obama is a gifted communicator. I can't help but wonder how this a bad thing.
Hackman and Johnson define leadership specifically as "communication which modifies the attitudes and behaviors of others in order to meet group goals and needs" (Hackman and Johnson, 1991). In this conception it is communication that defines leadership. Leadership effectiveness depends on whether one can process cues from the environment, listen well to others, and establish satisfying group relationships. Leaders are those who can take this input from others and convert it into vision for the future. Obama matches these traits. As a person of mixed race in a predominantly white environment he is adept at understanding his situation and molding the impression he makes. He has established a reputation for inviting divergent views to the table in order to hear perspectives other than his own. He has inspired the most productive movement of professional and volunteer organizers, people who are satisfied just to be a part of the process. Most of all he has cast a large vision for the future in simple words like unity, hope and change.
Marshall Sashkin captures this idea in his conception of visionary leadership. A visionary leader is someone who can construct a vision and create an ideal image of the organization and its culture (Sashkin, 1989). This leader then must be able to define the organizational philosophy and put it into practice with programs and policies. An effective leader, according to Sashkin, is one who can express an organizational aim, through written and face to face relations, and extend this vision in a variety of circumstances. Obama is a quintessential visionary leader.
Communication and vision casting are not trivial traits. Look at the history of the United States and you will find that great presidents are known for exactly these skills. Lincoln stood up to the seceding South in the vision of the Emancipation Proclamation and the eloquence of his second inaugural address. Franklin D. Roosevelt calmed the fears of the nation in the Depression through fireside radio chats and called the country to defeat fascism in World War II through rousing rhetoric. John F. Kennedy was in office such a short time, but is remembered on behalf of his image management, his optimism, and his vision for the future. And Ronald Reagan, an actor, was hailed for his oratorical skills as he communicated his way through the end of the Cold War. That is what good presidents do. They listen to the public, and then speak for America. They invite confidence and participation. They use words and style to advocate on behalf of policy, both here and abroad. They embody the image of the nation. These are not small traits, rather they are quite charismatic.
To further substantiate this view of leaderhip as communication, we need only look at its antithesis: George Bush. I do not bring his presidency up as a straw man. Any honest citizen must acknowledge that President Bush has enacted some good programs, like the emergency fund for AIDS in Africa. But by all accounts he has not been a good communicator and this has cost the country in her own self confidence and reputation around the world. In the wake of this administration of little listening, miscast vision and poorly communicated plans, the nation needs a visionary leader, someone who can rebrand America both internally and externally, someone who can make people believe again. If eloquence is essential in that endeavor, then Obama should not be faulted for his fluency.