Charisma versus Competence

September 19, 2011

As a society, we sometimes have a hard time resolving which of these two factors (charisma or competence) should be weighted most heavily when choosing our President. Ideally, we would always have candidates who are both charismatic and extremely competent. But over the years, we have had some candidates that were lacking in one department or the other.

So we might ask… Where do our priorities lie? What wins out? Do we prefer the person we’d like to “have a beer with” or the person who is extremely intelligent? Too often it is the former rather than the latter. Those who prioritize competence are perplexed by those who favor likability. They cannot understand how someone would sacrifice competence to vote for the likable candidate. But I think this tendency can be explained by both our emotional needs as well as what we learn about elections during our youth.

Crowning the king and queen

Growing up, most people have the desire to fit in, to be accepted and to be popular. Those who are popular during the school age years are envied and sometimes even idolized. Think back to the types of elections that you had in high school. One type that is important to many young people is choosing homecoming and prom kings and queens. Young people generally do not choose the most accomplished students but rather those who are the most popular or likable. Some high schools do also have young people elect class officers but often these elections are also based on popularity and the roles are sometimes little more than saying you were elected as many high schools don’t have extremely active student governments. Because of the nature of these early life elections, we learn that they are primarily for selecting who is the most popular.

Do we subconsciously long for a Royal Family?

Another key variable that makes this decision between charisma and competence challenging to resolve is that we have one leader in the United States. Some nations have both a head of state and a head of government. For example, in the United Kingdom the head of government (the Prime Minister) is elected but the head of the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II, is the head of state. The Royal Family is a constant in the lives of those in the UK. Many people are interested in the members of the monarchy and some are extremely popular. For example, prior to her death, Princess Diana was almost universally beloved in Great Britain. What the Royal Family does is big news in the UK. I happened to be in Europe the day Prince William became engaged to Kate Middleton and it was on BBC almost continuously. Every time I turned on the television it was being mentioned. Although I don’t believe most Americans would embrace the idea of having a monarchy in the United States, I think that this system does help to fulfill the psychological needs that people have for consistency and beloved figures who embody the spirit of the nation.

Letting go of childhood standards

We need to come to terms with the fact that we are not choosing a prom king or queen every four years. The types of “elections” we participated in our youth are no longer relevant and don’t have anything to teach us about electing the President of our nation. And, because our system of government is not like that in the United Kingdom, we don’t have the option to have one figure to be the beloved representation of the spirit of the country and one figure to be the chief executive officer of the government. If we want to fulfill psychological needs for popular icons, let’s find other avenues to meet our needs such as entertainment news.

Popularity contest? No – Job Interview? Yes

Instead of viewing the election for the Presidency as a popularity contest, let’s instead view it as hiring the best person for the job of President. We are the selection committee and every four years we interview a group of candidates for this very important job. To determine how we should weight charisma and competence, let’s consider how we select professionals in other very important roles. For example, if you need help with a tax problem or if you are in jail wrongly accused of a crime, do you want an accountant or attorney that is very likable or very competent? Almost without exception we would choose the competent professional because of the importance and difficulty of the work to be done and the potentially disastrous consequences if it is not done properly.

Without question, the Presidency fits into this category and every four years we need to hire the best and most competent person for the job rather than the popular beer buddy. If the most competent person also happens to be the most likable, that’s great. If not, we need to stay focused on selecting the candidate who has the greatest skills and abilities to serve as President.