Transformational leadership in a postmodern world: the presidential election of Barack Obama.

Author:Green, Daryl D.


"Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other," explained Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States. Yet, not even Abraham Lincoln could imagine the remarkable 2008 presidential election as it unfolded. It was unpredictable and historical in many ways. This paper examines this important historical event through the lenses provided by Trait, Postmodernism, and Transformational Leadership theories. These approaches provide insight on how the perception of leadership attributes influence voting behavior. Additionally, insight from this investigation may generate insight on leadership perception in other settings including business and the nonprofit sectors. Siegel (2001) suggested that business executives can learn a great deal about leadership by analyzing the campaign management practices of American presidents. Therefore, both researchers and practitioners can benefit from the results of this analysis.

The election was the longest presidential campaign and the most expensive in history (Deutsche Press Agentur, 2008). Additionally, the event marked the first time that two US senators would run against each other. Furthermore, New York Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton was the first serious female presidential candidate, and Senator Barak Obama was the first African American nominated by a major party for president. For the Republican Party, Arizona Senator John McCain had hoped to become the oldest person elected president to a first term in America. His running mate Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was the first woman vice president candidate for the Republican Party (Green, 2009).

Throughout this historical presidential race, a key question discussed in the media and among experts was whether a multiracial candidate could win. The media continued to remind the public about the significance of race and social class in the presidential election. Some observers argued that Obama may not win because of his racial background (Weisberg, 2008a). Conversely, other observers viewed him as a post-racial candidate (Steele, 2008). Would white citizens vote for a black man in America? Could Obama redraw the electoral map with a new energized segment of the population that included young voters, independents, and minorities? Other opponents mentioned that Obama was too inexperienced, untested, and unready to become the president. Nevertheless, his political savvy, innovative election strategy, and charismatic personality was enough to make him victorious (Green, 2009). On November 4, 2008, Obama became the first African American elected to the US Presidency.


This study utilizes the application of leadership theories in analyzing the election of President Obama in 2008. Leadership Theory provides researchers an opportunity to understand the dynamic leader-follower relationships in a cultural framework. Hackman and Johnson framed (2004) the leadership definition in several themes which were (a) the ability to influence others, (b) influence as a group context, and (c) the emphasis on collaboration. Bass and Riggio (2005) argued that leadership is not just about the province of people at the top. In fact, leadership can happen at all levels and by any person. Therefore, leadership involves human (symbolic) communication which modifies the followers' attitudes and behaviors so that the group can meet shared goals and needs. Northouse (2006) further supported Hackman and Johnson's leadership premise. He suggested that there several some commonalties about leadership despite the varying definitions. They include the following: (a) leadership is a process, (b) leadership involves influencing, (c) leadership occurs in a group context, and (d) leadership involves goal attainment. Schmidt (2006) further argued that leadership definitions reflect the viewpoint of an industrial society, and a new era begat a new definition for leadership. Yet, Prewitt (2004) further noted that the current leadership theories are based on modernist assumptions and are out of date with leading postmodern organizations. Nevertheless, this paper defines leadership as a contextual influence that has an impact on subordinates' attitudes and performance through effects on the subordinates' perceptions of their job characteristics (Northouse, 2006). Bass (1990) argued that leadership has a significant bearing on an organization's performance. In fact, most social, political, and cultural movements require an effective leader to sustain any noticeable success. Therefore, leaders have the capacity to influence the values needed in a changing organizational environment (Ferguson, 2003).

This investigation provides exploratory data by utilizing an extensive literary review of over 20 documents including scholarly opinions and practitioner discussions. The documents were selected based upon a review of the popular press and academic literature. Given the contemporary and recent nature of the topic, most of the sources selected are from the popular press. In effect, this is a convenience sample of relevant, timely, and credible sources that enhance and support the scholarly discussion of Trait, Postmodernism, and Transformational theories as applied to the 2008 Presidential election. These sources included practitioners, management consultants, columnists, and political pundits. Collection and critical analysis of secondary data from relevant publications were conducted for the results of the 2008 presidential elections. Various organizational behavior theories were reviewed to identify the related leadership attributes that may influence on political campaigns. The contributions made by well-known leadership researchers such Northouse were investigated.

The primary objective of this review of literature is to increase depth of knowledge in this field in order to make a relevant analysis of each theory. Electronic databases such as ABI/INFORM Global and the Internet were searched using key words 'leadership,' 'presidential elections,' and 'postmodernism.' There was a significant absence of literature related to how various leadership theories can help explain the perceptions of the electorate. Consequently, there is an opportunity to address key research gaps.


The chronology of how a relatively little known and young politician would become the 44th president is well known. However, Obama's background was not characteristic of a traditional path to the US Presidency. Obama grew up as the only son of a white mother from Kansas and a black father from Kenya (Asim, 2009). Additionally, Obama's diverse background and multiracial identity generated confusion regarding his placement in society and made some Americans uncomfortable (Green, 2009). Prior to his election as Senator and his keynote address and the 2004 Democratic National Convention, Obama was relatively unknown Illinois state legislator. The Democratic frontrunner was New York Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton. The vast majority of the pundits and prognosticators predicted a Clinton victory (Belfast Telegraph, 2008). Some analysts posited that Obama was "too black." Other observers proclaimed that he was just "not black enough." Todd and Gawiser (2009) argued that Obama transformed the Democratic primary from a bland political race to a clash of two cultural titans, Clinton and Obama. Clinton's strategists were nervous about Obama's potential as he was the "darling" of Democratic activists and the blogosphere (Todd & Gawiser, 2009). Unlike the campaigns of his principal rivals, Clinton and McCain, Obama remained on message throughout the campaign with his message of change while his opponents could not disassociate themselves from the political establishment.

The individual state races were more unpredictable as controversial matters continued to surface about the presidential candidates. For Hillary Clinton, it was President Clinton's unscripted comments about Obama (Belfast Telegraph, 2008). For Obama, it was his associations with perceived radicals such as William Ayers or Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Obama took an early lead in Iowa and held his advantage in spite of later losses in Ohio and Pennsylvania. On July 24, 2008, Obama defeated Clinton by sealing the presidential nomination with wins in South Dakota and Montana (Belfast Telegraph, 2008). The race was historic with both Clinton and Obama receiving over 17 million votes during the nomination process. In August of 2008, Senator Barack Obama became the first biracial candidate in United States history to represent a major political party. On the other side of the aisle, McCain secured the Republican presidential nomination. It was obvious to pundits and researcher alike that the growing diversity of the US population would contribute to the outcome of the election. Obama attempted to rewrite conventional wisdom by attacking traditional red states Republican strongholds. Obama sought to electrify young and diverse voters as part of his strategy. For example, the number of Blacks and Hispanic undergraduate students enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide had increased by 32% and 98% respectively over the decades while the number of White students had decreased by 1% (Perna, 2000). The result was positive for Obama given that the college age cohort supported Obama at a much higher rate than older citizens). Additionally, McCain could not overcome the legacy of one of the most unpopular presidents in US history and a faltering economy aggravated by a serious financial systems crisis. On November 4, 2008, Obama was elected the United States president. The results were startling for many political junkies as well as the average voters. Obama won 365 Electoral votes compared to McClain's 173 (46%).


Many Obama loyalists would propose that President Obama was a "born" leader, thereby subscribing to the direct application of Trait...

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