Leadership : Charisma of US Presidents

Paper by Professor Ronald Deluga, April 1998. 
Ron is Professor of Psychology, at Bryant College, Rhode Island.  




Historiometric procedures were used to examine American presidential charismatic leadership (Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan) from three theoretically related perspectives. These approaches encompassed transformational, behavioral, and attributional charismatic leadership. Five archival and two newly generated data sets were used to create a general index of charismatic leadership for each of the nine presidents.

The indices indicated that Roosevelt and Ford were the highest and lowest rated charismatic presidents, respectively. Cluster analysis revealed several salient clusters including Reagan-Kennedy, Truman-Johnson-Nixon, and Carter-Ford. Key events of the respective presidencies were used to explain the various clusters.


The purpose of this study was to illuminate the nature of charismatic leadership in the modern American presidency. A brief review of charisma and three charismatic leadership theories (transformational, behavioral, and attributional) follows.

The article then describes an empirical study using archival data, historiometric procedures, and cluster analysis to portray the charismatic leadership patterns in nine recent American Presidents (Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan). Finally, the discussion section reviews relevant historical events to illustrate the varying levels of charismatic leadership in the identified clusters


Weber (1924/47) described the charismatic leader as set apart from others. Due to a certain quality of personality, charismatic leaders are frequently idolized by subordinates and are often perceived as superhuman. Subordinates identify with the charismatic leader and are inspired by a demonstrative and convincing speaking style, contagious ebullience, and personal magnetism (Yuki, 1994). Furthermore, charismatic leaders are likely to emerge in crisis situations where subordinates search for a savior (Bass, 1985a). With regard to American Presidents, House, Spangler, & Woycke (1991) reported that presidential personality and charisma were important determinants of effectiveness.

In the past decade, charismatic leadership has been the center of considerable systematic empirical study. Among other approaches, these studies have focused on the transformational (Bass & Avolio, 1994), behavioral (House, 1977; House et al., 1991), and attributional aspects of charismatic leadership (Conger & Kanungo, 1987, 1988).

Transformational Charismatic Leadership 

Transformational leader-subordinate relationships are intensely emotional where empowered subordinates achieve more than initially expected. By appealing to higher order needs, the transformational leader generates subordinate awareness and commitment to the organizational mission. Prior work has demonstrated that transformational leadership can be conceptually arranged along four related factors including charisma or idealized influence (fostering a sense of mission among subordinates), inspiration (articulating a captivating vision of how to achieve a future idealistic state), intellectual stimulation (encouraging the development of innovative solutions to problems), and individual consideration (employing a mentoring and developmental orientation with subordinates; Bass, 1985a; Bass & Avolio, 1994; Hater & Bass, 1988).

Behavioral Charismatic Leadership 

House et al. (1991) described behavioral charisma in terms of relationships and how the leader's actual or presumed behavior impacts subordinate outcomes. In contrast to transformational charisma, the behavioral approach merges the motivational (personality) bases of competent leadership with effectiveness. As developed by McClelland and associates (1985a, 1985b), these motives include the charismatic leader's unusually high need for power, low needs for affiliation and achievement, and high activity inhibition (the use of power for organizational rather than personal goals). In their study of U.S. presidents, House et al. (1991) concluded that behavioral charisma and personality (i.e., motive profiles) influenced presidential performance.  

Attributional Charismatic Leadership 

Conger and Kanungo's (e.g., 1990) model proposes that charismatic leadership is chiefly an attributional phenomenon founded on subordinate perceptions of the leader's behavior. Subordinates observe and interpret leader behavior and traits as expressions of charisma. Charismatic behaviors and traits need not always be present to an identical degree in every charismatic leader and their relative importance will vary with the situation. Conger and Kanungo (1990) propose a three stage charismatic leadership process including environmental assessment, vision formulation, and implementation.  


No single prior study has addressed presidential leadership across the three aforementioned perspectives. Therefore, because of the considerable impact of presidential leadership and the connection between presidential charisma and performance (e.g., House et al., 1991; Simonton, 1988), an examination of presidential charismatic (behavioral, attributional, and transformational) leadership seems important. The findings could facilitate future research analyzing the U.S. presidency e.g., rated greatness, leadership effectiveness, etc. Accordingly, the focus here was to summarize several historiometric assessments and compare the charismatic leadership behavior of the nine most recent U.S. presidents (Franklin Roosevelt through Ronald Reagan).

The nine most recent Presidents were selected because of their general familiarity, the inherent interest in their presidencies (e.g., Neustadt, 1990), and due to the plethora of readily available biographical information. The research questions of interest were: Among the nine most recent presidents, who was the most charismatic? The least? Will historiometric analyses empirically support the general consensus that Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford are, respectively, among the most and least charismatic presidents? Which presidents display similar patterns of charismatic leadership?


Presidential behavioral (House et al., 1991; Simonton, 1988), attributional (Conger & Kanungo, 1987, 1988, 1990), and transformational charismatic leadership (Bass, 1985a; Bass & Avolio, 1994) were measured. Seven assessments were employed including five archival and two newly created data sets. To insure equal weighing among the seven charisma data sources, all data were converted into standardized z scores. Higher scores indicate greater levels of the measured variable.  

Archival Data 

Behavioral charisma. For the aforementioned nine presidents, the two behavioral-based measures of presidential charismatic leadership developed by House et al. (1991) and the presidential charisma and creative style assessments developed by Simonton (1988) were used in this study.

Transformational charisma. Archival data were taken from Bass, Avolio, and Goodheim (1987). To more precisely assess charismatic leadership, only the charisma scores (i.e., the most salient factor in transformational leadership) for the nine presidents were selected.

Historiometric methodology was employed to create two additional sets of data assessing presidential transformational and attributional charismatic leadership. The following describes the procedures.


Data were collected from undergraduate students enrolled at a business college located in the Northeast. As a semester project, participants selected one of the nine most recent United States presidents whom the participant would be interested in studying. The participants were instructed to confidentially study the relevant passages from numerous biographical reference works, many of which have been employed in previous studies examining presidential leadership (e.g., Simonton, 1986). Several different biographical reference works were utilized to fortify the validity and reliability of the participants' leadership ratings. A one page outline was distributed to guide the participants' study e.g., "describe what it would be like to be an immediate subordinate of this president." The participants' study culminated in the submission of a 1000 word essay about their chosen president based on the information obtained from use of the outline.

The participants then were asked to imagine that they were a subordinate of their respective U.S. president. The participants subsequently confidentially completed the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire-Form 5 (MLQ-5; Bass, 1985b), measuring transformational charismatic leadership, and the Conger-Kanungo scale of attributional charismatic leadership (C-K; Conger & Kanungo, 1990) during a regular class period. 


To recall, the goal of the study was to compare the charismatic leadership behavior of the nine most recent U.S. presidents. Five data sets were transported from archival sources while two additional data sets were generated for this investigation. These data measured presidential behavioral (House et al., 1991; Simonton, 1988), attributional (e.g., Conger & Kanungo, 1988), and transformational (Bass, 1985a) approaches to charismatic leadership.  
Will historiometric analyses empirically support the conventional wisdom that Franklin Roosevelt and Gerald Ford are, respectively, among the most and least charismatic presidents? Which presidents display similar patterns of charismatic leadership? To address these research questions, a general index of charismatic leadership for each president was constructed by summing his seven different charisma z scores. These included each president's four behavioral charisma (House et al., 1991; Simonton, 1988) and transformational charisma (Bass et al., 1987) z scores as well as the newly produced transformational and attributional charisma z scores. The general charismatic leadership indices show that Roosevelt was the highest rated charismatic leader (index = 7.20), whereas Ford was the lowest rated charismatic leader (index = -8.59).

To determine which presidents are the most alike in general charismatic leadership, a between-group average-linkage cluster analysis was performed using the general charismatic leadership indices. Several clusters clarify how the nine presidents compare in general charismatic leadership. First, Roosevelt emerges in a separate cluster several steps from the remaining presidents. Next, Reagan joins Kennedy at a short distance. Third, Truman and Johnson comprise a closely coupled subcluster and, at a short distance, are linked to Nixon. Eisenhower connects with the above clusters at a moderate distance, followed by Roosevelt several steps more distant. Finally, the two lowest rated presidents, Carter and Ford, constitute a subcluster which links with the remaining clusters at a considerable distance.


The findings provide empirical support for the general consensus that among the nine most recent U.S. presidents, Roosevelt ranks the highest in charismatic leadership while Ford ranks the lowest. Furthermore, the cluster analysis revealed several interesting groupings. How might these charisma clusters be explained? One possible explanation may be gained from a thumbnail sketch of the respective presidencies.  


First, Roosevelt's substantiation as the highest rated charismatic president supports the idea that charismatic leaders are likely emerge in times of considerable peril (Bass, 1985a). Thus, during the country's most severe 20th Century crisis, Roosevelt capitalized on his charismatic leadership by rallying the country out of the Great Depression and galvanizing the citizenry for the World War II effort. His inspirational fireside chats helped gain acceptance for his ideas and moved the United States out of an isolationist international mode. Roosevelt's physical disability, i.e., the lower body paralysis, further fortified his charismatic leadership.  


Reagan's rating as the second highest charismatic president exposes his astute management of the news media; he took credit for successes and distanced himself from failures, hence the term the "teflon President." Perhaps cultivated during his acting career, Reagan employed impression management tactics to create a charismatic aura of being personable, likeable, and a decisive chief executive. Reagan's poise and sense of humor under stress, e.g., following the 1981 assassination attempt, further promulgated his charismatic leadership qualities.   


Kennedy was the third highest ranked president. Kennedy's youthful appearance, the uplifting nature of his inaugural address, the Camelot family image of his presidency, and his assassination all contributed to a charismatic impression. Kennedy also skillfully used televised press conferences to express his vision and excite the country about the desirability of a successful moon mission.  


Truman as the fourth highest ranked charismatic president is somewhat surprising. Perhaps Truman's major presidential acts such as the decision to deploy the atomic bomb and end World War II, his unexpected election victory over Thomas Dewey, and the renown "the buck stops here" motto help formulate his charismatic leadership style. Truman forms a loosely linked subcluster with Johnson which, in turn, fuses with Nixon. Thus, the cluster implies that these three chief executives display parallel charismatic leadership profiles. What might account for this grouping?  

Truman, Johnson & Nixon

Curiously, all three presidents experienced sizable public relations and impression management dilemmas. For example, Truman followed directly in the footsteps of the highly charismatic Roosevelt, had a well publicized imbroglio with General Douglas McArthur and endured an eroding support for the Korean War. Likewise, Johnson concurrently was attempting to cope with the Vietnam War and urban riots. He was frequently characterized as crass and Machiavellian, attributes generally not associated with charismatic leadership. Finally, rather than using the media as an influential ally, Nixon often was depicted as despising the media. The growing absence of media support as the Watergate scandal unfolded greatly contributed to his subsequent resignation.   


Eisenhower was the third lowest rated president. Given that his presidency is often portrayed as deficient in purpose, rather inert, and not particularly inspiring, Eisenhower's emergence in the bottom third of the rankings is not unanticipated. Eisenhower's steady, but languid demeanor may augment his low charismatic ranking.  

Carter & Ford

Finally, Carter and Ford form the lowest rated charismatic cluster. Carter was unable to arouse the country with his version of fireside chats. In fact, Carter's low charismatic leadership standing seems a reflection of his powerlessness during the 1979- 81 holding of the American diplomatic staff in Tehran. Similarly, Ford, as the lowest rated charismatic president, failed to excite. Despite his many accomplishments including collegiate athletic achievements, Ford exhibited a mistake prone persona. His monotone and awkward oratory delivery further contributed to an uninspiring presidency.  


American presidential leadership has far ranging consequences. Accordingly, because of the empirically established charisma-performance relationship (e.g., House et al., 1991; Simonton, 1988), the objective of this study was to compare the charismatic leadership in the nine most recent presidents.

The investigation contributes to the research literature in several ways. First, the results empirically sustained the general consensus that Roosevelt and Ford are, respectively, the highest and lowest charismatic modern U.S. presidents. Second, the results generally supported the idea that transformational, behavioral, and attributional charismatic leadership may share a similar core construct whereby a president inspires followers to achieve a highly desirable vision and reach performance levels surpassing what is anticipated.

Finally, cluster analysis clarified how the nine presidents compared in general charismatic leadership. Salient clusters included Reagan-Kennedy, Truman-Johnson-Nixon, and Carter-Ford.
e-mail Ron on rdeluga@bryant.edu

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