Almost immediately after Oprah gave her speech at the recent Golden Globe Awards, speculation about her candidacy for President of the United States emerged. The commentary in support of and against this idea continues. All the while, Oprah has not given an indication about whether or not she has political aspirations.

I found Oprah’s speech inspiring, no doubt. Her oration skills beautifully magnify the content of her message. Beginning with her own story, moving on to speak to women everywhere and then bringing us to another individual story, that of Recy Taylor. Oprah wove poignant stories through her message in a way that commands attention and creates powerful memories.

Of course, a critical element of her speech was – she is Oprah.

When the message and the messenger are both compelling, the meaning is both credible and amplified. Click To Tweet

What of this “Oprah for President” idea? Oratorical skills are highly desirable in a political leader. Kennedy, Reagan and Clinton all had tremendous skills as communicators. Oprah certainly has that. She is also described using other superlatives such as courage, loyalty and an entrepreneurial spirit, all of which are admirable traits.

My concern is not so much about Oprah, but about our tendency to leap from admiration to hero-worship. Over-interpreting charisma and assuming that it predicts intelligence and good character is a mistake. It is most often made unconsciously.

Distilling the qualities of a charismatic person, stunning as they may be, to the extent that we assume their brilliance in one domain extends to every facet of life is an error in judgment. Common? Normal? Sure, but leaders can’t afford to use this type of shortcut. A charismatic person may have many admirable qualities. We don’t know this because they are charming. We only know it from other information that, in our haste to save time and feed our belief that we are insightful, we do not pursue.

When we idolize others, we imbue them with laudable traits that they may not possess and leave ourselves vulnerable to their influence when we shouldn’t. This shortcut, clearly, has dangers.

As much as people want heroes, we need leaders more. Heroes are people in whom we loath to see imperfections. Once we choose a hero, the confirmation bias kicks in, leading us to believe the positives about the person while ignoring or explaining away bad behavior or deficits. Even more dangerous, is the person who thinks themselves a hero or heroine, incapable of wrongdoing or mistakes.

Leaders may be heroic at times, but not a single one whom I admire calls himself or herself a hero; quite the opposite. Several have confided that when they first rose to a position of responsibility, they imagined that under their leadership the ills in the organization, the poor performers, slow sales, production problems, etc., would be solved. Most learned that more observation, thought, mentoring and teaching was needed than they previously believed.

We want heroes but we need leaders.

Oprah provided leadership in her speech by teaching, inspiring, admonishing, and affirming what needs to be done. She was speaking mostly to women, but also affirmed men as vital to making our workplaces and lives safer, more productive and happier. Leaders at any level can take a page or two from Oprah.

The leadership lessons:

  1. Speak declaratively about the future you envision.
  2. Tell people that they are important in achieving the vision.
  3. Affirm the capability and good will of others.
  4. Articulate what it will be like when the goals are achieved.

Great leaders do not seek admiration or hero status. They do not let charisma in another person lead them astray, nor do they use their own to manipulate. Great leaders know how to influence for good without a title or position and teach others to do so.

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