More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series)

Summary:  Since we are about to elect a President largely on the basis of his charisma, the FM blog is running a few articles on this topic.  Know it before you buy it!

Here is a comment by Donald Vandergriff (Major, US Army, retired) about the opening salvo in the series, Does America need a charismatic President?:  We must be careful with the word “charisma”, in the case of people who act as leaders. I talk about the cheerleading effect in my forthcoming book Military Recruiting: Finding and Preparing Future Soldiers.  Here is an excerpt describing what has occurred in our culture.”  (His book hits the shelves October 2008)

Publicly admitting that there are major problems that demand action and possible public sacrifice are also likely the same reason not one presidential contender, except for Congressman Ron Paul, has addressed how he or she is going to fix Social Security or Medicare, for which the costs are spiraling out of control. Telling the truth will only get politicians in trouble and not elected — the people will punish them for telling the “inconvenient truth.”

Over time, nations or large organizations such as an Army take one of two evolutionary routes: continue to adapt with changing environmental conditions in order to sustain their core beliefs or become complacent, resting on one’s laurels. If it is the latter, it is because its very success has led to its isolation from a changing environment. Decisions based on facts and assumptions that led to success become dated. In turn, the organization or nation should demand that its leaders conduct critical analysis in order to propose courses of action to meet goals.

The right course of action may force leaders to make hard choices that, in turn, require they ask those they lead to change their accepted habits and even make sacrifices. Rather than accepting and attempting to adapt the current and positive way of life to the unknown problems the future may bring, those in power and the citizens at large may choose to react to the demands of the environment by doing nothing; keeping things as they are, while pretending to do something through colorful rhetoric and complicated presentations. Then, in order to justify doing nothing or not making hard choices, a culture adopts the “cheerleading effect.”

The cheerleading effect is where the only accepted message is a positive one. Everyone in a culture that accepts cheerleading wants to feel great; wants the party to go on, even after everyone has forgotten what the celebration was for. It becomes an endorsement of current accepted beliefs or policies, and over time, it even transforms history into one-sided views that become traditions and myths that, in turn, support the current accepted message.

Cheerleaders are motivators and entertainers. Cheerleaders are also attractive. At football games their primary duty is to try to get the crowd involved in the game, particularly in home games where crowd noise can be used as the “12th player.” Hopefully, this motivates their team, and if crowd noise is loud enough, it makes it hard for the visiting team to call or change plays and hear the snap count.
Cheer leaders also provide entertainment. They are athletically fit and do numerous acrobatic stunts to keep people motivated during down times. Even in the direst moments of a losing contest, cheerleaders try to convince people that through some miracle, their team is going to win. Only after the loss in a big game do you ever see cheerleaders show signs of despair.

When cheerleading is used by an organization to undermine and block change, then it is not used to motivate, but to lie and eventually destroy members’ trust in the organization.

“Cheerleading effect” becomes a cultural norm as it accompanies and justifies complacency. It is particularly evident in democracies in which the nation periodically elects new leaders or endorses current leaders by allowing them another term in office. In turn, the politicians promise to do several things to take care of their followers. To the individual, cheerleading provides security, even though, over time, it eventually may lead to the demise of the culture. Another aspect of U.S. culture that supports the cheerleading effect is our focus on the individual.

Professions also have cheerleaders. They are the members who keep the profession upbeat and retain the faith in the doctrine of the organization. This is especially needed in bad times, or when senior members of the profession try to sell ideas that may be seen as unpopular with the rank and file. Most of the time, those who are cheerleading are also the ones that have benefited the most by how the profession works, especially in terms of how to be successful. Thus, slowly over time, “cheer-leading” receives a place in the uppermost level of the profession. Today, “cheer-leading” is enhanced with the use of video technology. While cheerleading’s primary use is entertainment at athletic events, it becomes a dangerous phenomenon when it forces members to contradict the proven values of the profession.

Complacency in an Army is very dangerous, especially if successes drive an Army, and its larger society, into a mindset that moves beyond mere compliancy. There is a chance that the cheerleading used to drum up support for a war or mission becomes the truth if that particular event is successful. At this point, everyone, but particularly decision-makers, starts to believe that a “perfect” model has been found and is applicable for any task. Any debate or argument is seen as disloyalty.

For more information about recruiting

An Army near the Breaking Point – an archive of links, with links to over two dozen studies, reports, and articles about the US Army’s difficulty recruiting good people.

Why is military recruiting so important?

There are 3 kinds of solutions to 4GW:

Solutions of the first kind… new things (i.e., robots, autonomous flying vehicles,
software to help us understand and manipulate foreign societies).

Solutions of the second kind… new ideas about tactics and strategy.

Solutions of the third kind… new ways to shape our institutions
– aka politics — usually by altering how they recruit, train, and promote people. 

About Donald Vandergriff

In the world of military theory today there are many people on the cutting edge deserving our attention. Historians like Martin van Creveld, analysts like John Robb and Chet Richards, visionaries like Thomas Barnett, some crossing these categories like William Lind … but very few developing solutions that can be implemented today. By solutions, I mean large-scale programs (not incremental improvements) requiring no substantial political or institutional changes. Not a surprise, as this is a high bar!

One of the best known on this short list is Donald E. Vandergriff. Major, US Army. Retired 2005, now a consultant to the Army.

Here is a a full biography.

Here is an archive of his work:  The Essential 4GW reading list: Donald Vandergriff.

Other posts about the candidates for President

1. How the Iraq and Vietnam wars are mirror images of each other (7 February 2008) — Now we have McCain, the leading Republican Presidential candidate, talking of an open-ended commitment to victory in Iraq.

2. What do blogs do for America? (26 February 2008) — As our problems reach critical dimensions and our economy sinks into what is (at best) a severe recession, our national leadership will likely move into the hands of someone with astonishingly little capacity to govern.

3. A look at the next phase of the Iraq War: 2009-2012 (1 March 2008) — What is next in Iraq? None of the leading candidates have expressed any intention of leaving Iraq – except in the distant and vague future. McCain intends to fight so long as (or until) we suffer few casualties, then stay for a long time (perhaps a hundred years, as McCain said here and here) ). On the other hand, Obama has been quite explicit…

4. Our metastable Empire, built on a foundation of clay(3 March 2008) — We can elect leaders with vast ambitions (foreign for McCain, domestic for Obama), but can no longer afford them.

5. How long will all American Presidents be War Presidents?(21 March 2008) — The Presidential campaign rolls on in the seventh year since 9/11, with the only debate about the Long War being in which nations America should fight. We see this even the speeches of the most “liberal” candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

6. President Obama, an Muslim apostate?  (2 June 2008) — Nope.

7. American history changes direction as the baton passes between our political parties (18 May 2008) – Importance of the November 2008 political landslide.

8. Is Obama running for the office of Chief Shaman?  (6 June 2008) — Weirdness from our next President.

9. Does America need a charismatic President?  (15 July 2008)

For the articles from other sources, see About the candidates for President of the United States.

3 thoughts on “More about charisma, by Don Vandergriff…(#2 in the “getting ready for Obama” series)

  1. Undoubtedly many if not most people make voting decisions on the basis of charisma, and certainly many if not most past presidents had charisma to sell. (There are a surprising number of exceptions, but let’s stipulate the point.)

    Looking at Obama and not given to overvaluing charisma (or so I like to think), I see a man who, in my judgment, has progressive values balanced by ice water in his veins. A man with very few skeletons in his closet, very little negative baggage, and a man who has made very few mistakes in an overheated primary campaign environment that brought many would-be contenders to grief. It’s nice that he has charisma, but it’s not why voting for him is a good political bet.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: How many charismatic Presidents have we had since WWII? Kennedy, Reagan, and Clinton, certainly. Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Bush Sr, Bush Jr. — not in any meaningful sense. 3 of 11, hardly most.

    Obama has few sketetons in his closet (though more than we thought when he started in January) and little baggage because he has so little time in office (8 years in IL legislature, 4+ in US Senate). And roughly half of his time in office has been spent campaigning for higher office (67 of 140 months, per this article).

    Compare this with President Kennedy: 6 years in the House, 8 years in the Senate, only aprox 2 of these 14 years spent running for higher office.

    Fortunately for Obama the Republicans have (again) chosen to run a elderly man, unlike Dole perhaps tempermentally unsuited for high executive office. As a bonus for Obama, McCain has weak support in the Republican base. From “Pump This“, Ann Coulter, 2 July 2008:

    “The irony is, the only people McCain can count on to vote for him are the very Republicans he despises — at least those of us who can get drunk enough on Election Day to pull the lever for him. In fact, we should organize parties around the country where Republicans can get drunk so they can vote for McCain. We can pass out clothespins with his name as a reminder and slogan-festooned vomit bags. The East Coast parties can post the number of drinks necessary for the task to help the West Coast parties. For more information, go to Get Drunk and Vote 4 McCain.”

  2. Which post-WWII president did you leave out of your list? It should be 3 out of 11. Is this ommision Freudian? :)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Great catch! I have fixed the above note, adding in Nixon (would that instead I could excise him from our history).

  3. I would nix excising Nixon from our history; a fascinating character he was, with great capacity for good offset by shallow, irrational character flaws that never quite added up to genuine evil. He pulled charisma out of a hat with the “Checkers speech,” showed a certain nobility of character in the aftermath of the 1960 election, did in fact come up with and implement a plan to end the war in Vietnam, was a constructive domestic liberal and, in the words of a British observer, a “professional president.”

    But then there was that whole Watergate thing…..

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