Mister Cool and Detached

Much has been made of President Obama's recent about-face on tax increases for the middle class. Obama says he is now "an agnostic." What this really means is that he has no conviction, no plan, and no blueprint, and he will increase taxes as long as somebody else tells him to do it.

Obama's admirers will point to his ambivalence as "cool and detached." "Deliberate and thoughtful" are like-minded badges describing a powerful intellect making an agonizing choice among equally unattractive alternatives. This has been Obama's style in dealing with Iran, terrorist captives, and economic recovery.

Don't be fooled. For this president, "cool and detached" means "clueless and bewildered." In Sanskrit, the word describing Obama's diffidence and paralysis  is "avidya." This is a word found in Hindu sacred texts that combines ignorance, delusion, and folly -- the opposite state from seeing and knowing. The state of avidya is where one actively denies the nature of reality or is unable to reckon with the world as it is. Those captive to avidya create their own reality, thus appearing "cool and detached."

In todays' vernacular, Obama is simply bumfuzzled. Bumfuzzlement doesn't appear in the taxonomy of leadership traits by the organization behaviorists. Max Weber, the German sociologist, first described the three leadership categories: charismatic, transformational, and transactional.  

Most of our presidents have been either transformational or transactional leaders. Some were a combination. With few exceptions, all of the early presidents through Polk were both. Lincoln may have been the last transformational president until Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Ronald Reagan. Grant, a brilliant tactical general, failed as a transactional leader in the White House. Herbert Hoover, LBJ, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter certainly were transactional presidents, with catastrophic results. Truman was a transactional leader but with explosively good results. Calvin Coolidge and Ike used their understated transactional styles to build tranquility and prosperity.

JFK and FDR may be the only charismatic leaders among presidents in the 20th century. Bill Clinton might come close. Unfortunately, there are too many presidents having no leadership skills at all. For sure, James Buchanan, the anemic and ineffectual antebellum president, made only one decision -- to pass all of the trash to Lincoln. Giants in English history combining charisma with transactional brilliance were Henry V and Winston Churchill. George Washington stands out among all U.S. presidents, combining charisma with transformation and transactional leadership.

But what to make of Obama?

As a campaigner, he dazzled the majority with a confident charismatic air and a promise of transformation. Yet as for those of us holding the minority view then, we worried about Obama's lack of any transactional history. Without any transactional skills, as even the majority are now painfully seeing, charisma soon fades, and promised transformation languishes, spreading demoralization and disappointment among dispirited followers.

When a  presumed charismatic leader like Obama displays a "cool and detached" look, read that body language for what it is: avidya and bumfuzzled. It means that this nation is leaderless.

Geoffrey P. Hunt is a senior executive in a global firm.