Hillary Clinton’s charisma deficit is a common problem for female leaders

She’s not going to bake you any cookies, okay?
She’s not going to bake you any cookies, okay?
Image: AP Photo/Matt Rourke
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Hillary Clinton may be, in the words of Barack Obama, the “most qualified candidate” to ever to seek the presidency, but it’s now commonplace to suggest her leadership leaves something wanting. The Guardian notes that she “lacks authenticity and the kind of charisma required to unite a nation.” The Daily Beast asks, “Can Hillary’s one-percent charm win over voters?” And on Reddit, users wonder: ”How can Hillary Clinton be so far in the lead with so little charisma?” 

Charisma is difficult to define. Oprah or Michelle Obama might qualify as charismatic for many… but they’ve also never run for office (a show of ambition that tends to make women seem less likable). To some, Sarah Palin’s folksiness is a kind of charisma, but it has a sharply limited appeal. Meanwhile, politicians like Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, or Angela Merkel are celebrated as competent leaders, but at the expense of being seen as inspiring visionaries. They’ve won acclaim not in a grand rout, but through a war of attrition: by working really hard and showing up more prepared than everyone else in the room.

In business spheres too, women score well on all leadership dimensions, except being “visionary.” But surely this isn’t an exclusively masculine gift. (After all, the Oracle at Delphi, arguably the original visionary, was a woman.) Is the problem that women are still too new in leadership roles to seem “natural” at it? Or is the issue with our definition of charisma itself?

German sociologist Max Weber plucked the term “charisma” from its spiritual origins—it comes from the Greek for “gift of grace”—and ascribed to it the modern, secular meaning we use today: “Power legitimized on the basis of a leader’s exceptional personal qualities or the demonstration of extraordinary insight and accomplishment, which inspire loyalty and obedience from followers.”

This is still vague, to be sure, but then there is a certain irreducibly mysterious quality to charisma. Commentators talk about politicians having the “X-factor”—you know it when you see it. As Mirya Holman, a political scientist at Tulane University, points out, this makes it an easy cover for implicit gender biases. Voters aren’t likely to say they won’t support Clinton because she’s a woman, but they can say they won’t vote for her because she’s not charismatic (or inspiring, or likable).

Research from Harvard Business School posits a more exacting model, that inspiring leadership comes down to a combination of (conventionally) masculine and feminine characteristics—competence (ability to lead) and warmth (trustworthiness, empathy, connection). It is generally understood that women have had to err extravagantly on the side of competence—and jettison warmth—in order to be taken seriously as leaders. Davia Temin, a public relations expert who coaches CEOs, sees Clinton as “a victim of the need for women to grind out a lot of their emotion in order to be seen as competent.”

Clinton acknowledged as much this week in photo/interview series ”Humans of New York,” where she recounted the experience of taking the LSAT in 1969 in a room full of men, some of whom jeered at her (“If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die”). “It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond,” Clinton said. “I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions.”

Not being able to embrace an emotional voice—and thus, not being able to connect and inspire—has meant that women often put forth only fractured selves, stunted leaders. For all her qualifications, Clinton is dogged by accusations of being too stiff, too guarded, too inauthentic. Holman attributes this to the expectation that female leaders check every box and exhibit every leadership trait, while men can get away with checking just a few. (Notably, Weber’s definition of charisma includes an all-important “or.” Charisma can be based on exceptional personal qualities or extraordinary accomplishment, though women don’t seem to get that pass.)

As a sort of cultural backlash, the new generation of female leaders is grasping for a warmer, more emotionally resonant leadership style. They have more latitude to bring their whole selves to the table. Even the Hillary Clinton of 2016 has evolved from the Clinton of 2008, a candidate who diligently avoided shows of softness or femininity. Today Clinton talks about the joys of grandmotherhood, and calls for “more love and kindness.” (It doesn’t hurt that Grandma Hillary is more conventionally likable.) 

For Weber, charisma wasn’t just a personality trait but a particular relationship between a leader and their followers. It is founded on the perception and recognition of authority—something followers give and can just as easily take away. That means the emergence of charismatic female leaders depends not only on their ability to be their full selves, but also on the public’s ability to see their leadership as valid.

That will take time, and many more pioneers. As the pool grows, more types of female leaders will have the chance to emerge, and it may become possible for women of varying backgrounds, personalities, and management styles to find their way to the top spots. If their presence becomes commonplace, perhaps they won’t be put to the grueling assessments of the vanguard; they’ll have the freedom to be more natural.

Because there’s no room for charisma if you’re forced into being too practiced, if you’ve spent years correcting for every criticism. Says Holman, “[female leaders] have had the naturalness trained out of them as they’ve learned to present themselves in this all-encompassing way.”