PERSPECTIVES: The gift of charisma

Obama’s “rock star” cool may or may not be charismatic compared, for example, with the extraordinary humility demonstrated by the new pope

obama speech370 (photo credit: Reuters)
obama speech370
(photo credit: Reuters)
Unless Passover preparations commanded your complete attention, you’re probably aware of President Barack Obama’s visit, earlier this month, to Israel. Consistently, in describing the US president, the local media employed the word “charisma.” Whether nonchalantly slinging a jacket over his shoulder or dropping a “Dayenu” at an award ceremony with President Shimon Peres, for three consecutive days, Obama did, I agree, exude charisma.
But what is charisma? Attempting to clarify the nature of pornography, Supreme Court Justice Potter Steward described it as, “hard to define, though you know it when you see it.” The same might apply for charisma. Some have characterized the quality as “personal magic,” and “magnetic appeal.” Precise meaning may be difficult to pin down perhaps because charisma has many manifestations and the audience, many perspectives.
Depending on the viewer, President Obama’s “rock star” cool may or may not be charismatic compared, for example, with the extraordinary humility demonstrated by the new Pope Francis before hundreds of thousands of Catholics who welcomed him in St. Peter’s Square.
Whatever the definition, where do I stock up on that charisma stuff? Some contemporary studies in medical literature suggest that a person can acquire charisma, but the prevailing view considers the quality to be innate. A few imaginative researchers have undertaken a quest to identify a “charisma gene,” much like the BRCA1 and BRCA2 isoforms associated with breast cancer. So far, unfortunately, no one has managed to identify even a CHARM1 gene, let alone a CHARM2.
RESEARCHERS HAVE, however, discovered human charisma to be both deep and robust. In a recent article from the journal Brain Injury, University of Wisconsin investigators report that, even following trauma to the head, adults can achieve high scores on the validated Charismatic Leadership Communication Scale (CLCS).
The authors argue that both oral communication and non-verbal gestures allowed subjects to retain ability to engage human beings. The study notes that, even with impaired self-awareness following brain injury, people had an apparently inherent need to harness their charisma to facilitate relating with others.
During President Obama’s speech at Jerusalem’s International Convention Center, there seemed to me no doubt about audience engagement. But as others have suggested, the most captivating moment occurred when Obama uttered the Hebrew phrase, “atem lo levad,” which we can translate to mean, “you are not alone.” For me, that statement carries even more power than Clinton’s “shalom haver” at prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral or JFK’s “ich bin ein Berliner” during the Cold War. My impression has nothing to do with President Obama’s deft pronunciation, aided by notes handwritten in phonetic English. I confess to connecting with Obama at a deeper emotional level.
As an oncologist, I deal continually with fears about daunting diseases. As many surveys document, cancer patients are most concerned about death, pain and being left alone. Despite impressive advances in cancer therapy, many patients worry that, if their treatment options become exhausted, the stigma of a terminal condition will repel even their closest friends and family members, and they will be abandoned. In response to that fear of abandonment, the most engaging – the most charismatic – reassurance that we, as healthcare professionals and well meaning individuals can give to a patient are those comforting, even lifesaving words, “You are not alone.”
Abandonment in the face of pain, difficulty and crisis doesn’t restrict itself to people suffering from serious illness. Fear of being left alone when we do not want to be alone, where we need help or companionship, can affect us all.
Perhaps, then, we might think of Passover as a time to revisit our commitment to the people with whom we share our lives. The words of the Haggadah, “Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are in need, come and share,” beckon us to stand with our friends, family, fellow citizens and anyone else who may be in need of assistance, fellowship, or simply our reassurance. In offering the simplest of gifts – our supportive presence – we demonstrate our human charisma.
The author is professor and chairman of the Institute of Radiotherapy at Tel Aviv Medical Center and co-founder of the organization Life’s Door. His blog (“52”) is hosted by