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Was Huey Long a Charismatic Leader?

Updated on May 11, 2015
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Huey Long: Definitions of Charismatic Leadership

Sitting in the chambers of Congress while chewing on a cigar writing out his speeches, Louisiana’s Huey Long embodied a sense of charismatic leadership many in America would only see once in their lifetimes. Through understandings of charismatic leadership as laid out by Ann Ruth Willner, Huey Long’s displays of power in leadership can be seen as clearly based in a charismatic dimension.

In “Charismatic Leadership,” Willner describes the title’s leadership as being defined by certain properties:

  1. The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow super-human.
  2. The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
  3. The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
  4. The followers give the leader unqualified emotional commitment.

In the case of Huey Long, a man carefully constructed of varying political and moral standards, most of his affluence came through his ability to give rousing speeches. As Ken Burns’ documentary Huey Long displays, Long traveled around his own state and others giving speeches constantly, and most times with little preparation and no prepared notes. For many alive during Long’s “rise to power,” his public speaking abilities and bolstering rhetoric promising to make “Every Man a King” certainly may have seemed super-human at times.

While Huey Long’s speeches often included memorized facts and statistics, Long meets Willner’s second criteria in that his followers bought into his repeated use of phrases like “Every Man a King” and “the redistribution of wealth,” without hearing much of Long’s plans to reach those objectives. In some ways, Long’s followers blindly believed a lot of what he said even when his actions and interpretations of his role in government were drastically out of line in today’s standards. Some examples of Long’s missteps as referenced in Burns’ documentary include expelling journalism students from public universities for criticizing him, paying for campaign and personal expenses with taxpayer money, kidnapping blackmailers out of fear of his extramarital affair becoming public information, as well as refusing to sit on senate committees or obey rules of order.

By representing all of his actions and directives as part of his plan to make every man a “King,” Long also meets Willner’s third criteria for a charismatic leader. Through all of his widely talked about missteps, Long’s supporters continued to attend rallies, speeches and even defend him in Burn’s documentary - made decades after Long’s death. Long’s commitment to methods of charismatic leadership had his supporters still believing and fighting in his ideas and agenda even long after his death, which in turn, plays into Willner’s fourth criteria.

The fourth criteria, which Willner describes as having “unqualified emotional commitment,” is seen clearly in the way Long’s supporters continue to think so fondly of his message and actions during his political career. When taking into account the numerous missteps and accusations placed against Huey Long, such emotional commitment to his ideas is considerably unqualified, especially considering Long made no significant steps towards serious redistributions of wealth or making “Every Man a King.”

Though Long’s portrayal in Burn’s documentary through first hand video and accounts does well to show him both in positive and negative lights, Willner’s classifications best fit long because they don’t ascribe positive nor malicious connotations to Long’s motivations and achievements. Through his actions in achieving and exercising political power, Long clearly fits the criteria for Willner’s definition of charismatic leadership, though what may have become of his cut-short rise to power will never truly be known.

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