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Conference focuses on political perceptions

Is there a more perfect juxtaposition than Halloween and Election Day?

True, we're still 48 hours from observing the time-honored tradition of standing in a cardboard booth next to our neighbor's power mower while casting our votes in a cleaned-out garage. But the convergence of the scary season and the silly season seems fitting.

We're used to making our political decisions in the midst of a mud-slinging war of words but not in the midst of a real war. It's a frightening time, and it has nothing to do with costumes and masks, but a lot to do with who says what and what we choose to believe.

Which was why this past Wednesday's inaugural seminar of the Center for Leadership Innovation and Mentorship Building, or CLIMB, at Cal State San Marcos, was a stroke of perfect timing, even if the 50 or so participants had to slog through one of the wettest days on record to get there.

With the aroma of hot coffee and wet tweed hanging in the air, professors Rajnandini Pillai and Jeffrey Kohles of the College of Business Administration discussed the findings of their studies of how politicians communicate, and how what is said affects the way we, the public, perceive them as charismatic figures who are up to the job of leading us through difficult times.

Although the events of Sept. 11, 2001, were steeped in tragedy, Kohles pointed out that they also provided an incredible opportunity to put the president under a kind of verbal microscope and analyze more than 70 speeches and hundreds of print and electronic news stories about the days that followed.

Although previous speeches may not have packed much of a punch, "most people would probably agree that the crisis changed that," Kohles said. As the stronger words followed, so too did the approval ratings. A perception of charisma, or lack of it, could also have played a part in the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis. Particular words that convey a sense of purpose, empathy and action, and how they are presented – with a forceful, yet comfortable style – are what most resonate with the public.

"You need to be relaxed and friendly, but also dramatic and dominant," is how Kohles put it.

Yikes, is that all?

I've got a few questions of my own that I'd like some answers to. When it comes down to it, is it the politician or the person writing the speeches who's ramping up the charisma ratings? And what about substance over style? And when do we get to the point – or are we already there – where no matter what a politician says, we get so tired of all the rhetoric that we simply tune it out?

More studies are being conducted during this election, but Pillai said there was a personal aspect that needed to be considered, too. In other words, if I share a politician's values, then I consider him or her to be charismatic.

Maybe that explains why we've all decided – I know I have – that my candidate is the right one, really, and the one some of you have picked is so totally wrong.

In the future, Pillai said, CLIMB hopes to have more early-morning seminars, including one in the spring about ethical leadership, and to bring in local business leaders to develop relationships with students.

"We want to try to match up students with executives and develop an executive shadow for a day program," she explained.

She'd also like the school to get out into the business community and provide training programs for interested companies.

Pillai, who teaches and writes about charismatic leadership in organizations, has already conducted leadership workshops for groups such as the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, and would like to encourage more organizations to take a look at ways to make their leaders relate and respond to their employees.

By the way, this election holds more than an academic interest for Pillai. A native of India, she is now a citizen, and will be voting in her first U.S. election. Don't forget to completely fill out the little ovals, Professor Pillai, and watch out for those rakes and weed whackers. It's the American way.