Leadership Attraction

Many individuals are reluctant to admit that a person’s appearance may influence how others perceive them as a leader. Let’s take a trip back to the future.

Spanning nearly two years, the 2008 presidential campaign was historical on several fronts. It was the longest presidential campaign and the most expensive in history. It was the first time that two US senators would run against each other and New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton was the first serious woman presidential candidate and Senator Barak Obama was the first African American nominated by a major party for president.

However, the Republican Party had a share of history also. The Republican ticket consisted of Arizona Senator John McCain, who sought to become the oldest person elected president to a first term in America, and Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who was to become the first woman vice president candidate for the Republican Party. On November 4, 2008, Obama became the first African American to become president.  Did Trait Theory play a part in his strategy?

Leadership characteristics are important factors in the presidency that many pragmatists dismiss. Trait Theory suggests that certain individuals possess special innate qualities that make them the preferred leader. Qualities, such as height, intelligence, extroversion, and other noble traits are components of Trait Theory (See Table 7.1 in Impending Danger). Focusing on the 2008 elections, some would argue that both McCain and Obama possessed leadership qualities and support Trait Theory. However, the question must be posed ‘Which candidate best benefited from the outward perception of what a leader should look like?”

First, physical characteristics are what most individuals see first. In this presidential election, some of the physical traits included height, age, and race. Some people have identified strong physical characteristics as a perquisite for leadership selection. This application can easily be seen in athletics and activities that require great physical ability. Obama hovered over McCain in terms of physical stature. Obama was thought to be 6 feet 1 inch while McCain was 5 feet 9 inches. Obama, being tall and sturdy, would overshadow a much shorter and frail McCain. In many people’s minds, the election was much more about optics than content in some cases.

For example, the presidential debates also demonstrated showmanship. Political organizers worried how their candidates would be viewed by the voters. Therefore, the style of the debate was always a strategic consideration for the McCain camp. This reality was a major concern to McCain’s campaign because of the public perception. Obama was noticeably taller. Two of the three presidential debates in the fall were seated debates, perhaps to neutralize Obama’s height advantage.

Race was the mysterious factor in the election. There was no consensus on the role of race with some experts concluding race would have a significant impact (the Bradley effect) while others predicted that Obama’s race would aid his candidacy given the guilt, sympathy, and compensatory factors for the legacy of racism.

 According to a CNN Exit Poll (16,000 participants) of the presidential election, twice as many of those polled said age was an important factor in their vote as those who indicated race. Specifically, 78% went for Obama to 21% for McCain among voters who thought age was important. However, individuals who said race was an important factor voted 55% to 44% in favor of Obama. However, Obama also was the winner for people who said race was not important.

Second, intrinsic character attributes were also a significant factor. Most people admitted that Obama had star power. He was able to bring record number of crowds to his rallies. Former Secretary of State and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell supported Obama which broke ranks from his Republican Party: “He has both style and substance. I think he is a transformational figure.”

Yet, both candidates attempted to frame their opponent in a character framework. Feeding on the perceived eloquence of Obama, McCain’s strategy was to paint Obama as a celebrity and elitist. Additionally, McCain tried to use Obama’s articulate speech and his charisma with his followers as void of any substance. Obama had his own method for framing McCain. Obama attempted to portray McCain as the third-term of President Bush.

Last, political strategists sought out ways to best showcase their candidate while highlighting any character flaws in the opposition. The results showed that voter perception counts. Obama was viewed as the agent of change while McCain was viewed as part of the current establishment. Given the fact that Obama won every major demographic in the election, Trait Theory may have played a role in the outcome of the election.

Does having good looks really matter in our PC culture? If so, why?  Is there any value in applying Trait Theory to 21st Century organizations?

© 2011 by Daryl D. Green