Newt Gingrich’s best leadership trait

January 11, 2012

The following is part of a series of On Leadership profiles exploring the best leadership traits of each of the candidates in the GOP field. Our intention is to provide a debater's argument for each of the Republican hopeful's leadership strengths rather than examine the pros and cons of his overall leadership style. Click here for a full introduction to the series and links to the other candidates’ pieces.

Newt Gingrich gets a lot of credit for his smarts. Read almost anything about the professor-turned-politician, and his intellect comes up time and again. The former Speaker of the House is noted for his interest in everything from space exploration to zoology. He frequently gets called the GOP’s “idea man”—full of bold, if sometimes zany, ideas.

But intelligence alone is not enough to attract followers. What inspires Gingrich’s supporters is not just his ideas but the way he wraps them in narratives about the past and the future. Gingrich peppers his remarks with historical references, makes grand statements about where the country is headed, and launches into didactic but accessible explanations of everything from foreign policy to the deficit. He talks like someone who believes he can change the world—and he apparently does—causing those who support him to feel they are part of something of significance, something much bigger than themselves.

The upside of such a personality—what Michael Maccoby, the author of The Leaders We Need: And What Makes Us Follow , calls a “productive narcissist”—is a candidate who “thinks about what’s going to happen in the future, has a sense of motivating people through inspiration, and who partners with others for [his] visionary view. I don’t see any of the other candidates having that type of personality.”

Even if some see Gingrich’s historical allusions as grandiosity or the results of an outsized ego, the former teacher manages to tap into a need plenty of voters have for understanding the context of today’s world and the country’s place in history. With a supreme confidence in his views and an ability to distill complex issues, Gingrich speaks with a forthrightness that, while it can come off as brusque and even bomb-laden, helps those who follow him to feel smarter themselves.

At a time when there is great fear about the future, people want someone to paint a picture of what it will look like for them. Gingrich seems to sense this. As he told Matt Bai in a recent profile in The New York Times, “I only exist because the country is in trouble.”

Jena McGregor writes the Post Leadership blog for the Washington Post.

Read more in this series:

Ron Paul’s best leadership trait

Rick Santorum’s best leadership trait

Newt Gingrich’s best leadership trait

Mitt Romney’s best leadership trait

Rick Perry’s best leadership trait

Jon Huntsman’s best leadership trait

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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