That intangible magic

My daughter and a large group of her friends are on a swim team with three coaches. All three coaches work the children hard, all do a good job, all three are strict,and all use a fair amount of humor to motivate the kids.  The kids dislike one, tolerate another, and worship the third.  As I explained to Mr. Bookworm this morning, when I was talking to him about the swim team, this third coach has some intangible leadership quality that can only be chalked up to charisma.

I thought of that this morning when I read this WSJ article that tries to explain what charisma is in the political context.  Certainly charisma has been much on people’s minds as Obama has been sold as the charismatic candidate.

The Obama experience usefully demonstrates that much of charisma is hype, and that when facts overwhelm hype, the charisma can vanish, both as the audience begins to have a more realistic view of the politician and as the politician, dismayed by a lack of audience fervor, begins to get petty. In other words, as the article points out at length, charisma is tied to perception, which in turn is tied to success — if you’re already perceived as a leader, absent some fatal stumble, that perception will ensure a receptive audience.

The thing is that, with this coach and the kids, there is no perception and no hype, at least not from the kids’ point of view.  The kids got put in the pool and were told, by fiat, that three coaches were their appointed leaders.  Of these three, they have anointed one as the special coach, the one whose lead they’ll follow.

This coach’s leadership ability, therefore, comes, not from external signals, but from his own contribution to the kids’ experience.  And as to that, the ability ties into his instinctive knowledge about how to to press the kids as hard as possible, but to know when to back off, so that they can achieve goals they hadn’t imagined, without being destroyed by too much pressure.  He also shows an innate sense of the place both humor and discipline have in driving people to succeed.

This coach’s skills could, of course, be situationally unique.  That is, while he may have an intuitive understanding of children, he might be incredibly ham-handed when it comes to dealing with adults.  What inspires the 10 year old set might exasperate or offend the 30 something crowd.  It’s hard to know.  All I can say is that, whatever charisma is, when I see this guy at the pool, I know he has it.