Intellectual Charisma

Margaret Mead

Many household names have lived their lives in accordance with what Suh Yoon Lee has said. They have broken free of stereotypes to discover their true selves and got what they wanted while enjoying the present. In this series, we’ll examine how global leaders have practiced the principles of Suh Yoon Lee and what have been the results in their lives. –Editor’s note


November, 1976. The American Anthropological Association was holding its annual meeting in a Washington, DC hotel. Anthropologists had gathered there in opposition to sociobiology. There was fierce conflict between the assertion of the sociobiologists that everything is determined by genetics, and the insistence of other anthropologists that environment was more important: the famous “nature vs. nurture” debate. Some attendees even contended that sociobiological teachings should be entirely prohibited at state universities.

Anthropologist Helen Fisher recorded in her book The Sex Contract that this discussion was subsequently interrupted by the sound of loud footsteps. A 5’2 woman in her seventies with fluffy, slightly curly hair cut in bangs walked forward with a cane. The room went silent. This was America’s most famous anthropologist, Margaret Mead.

She went onstage and clutched the mike, then started to speak. “Book-burning—we are talking about book-burning.” Fisher wrote of Mead’s speech, “Then she delivered a splendid defense of freedom of speech, freedom to write, freedom to research, freedom to teach, and the American Way. She closed with this: ‘We are supporting the people [the book burners] who attack everything we believe in. We are getting ourselves in an insane position.’”

The applause was thunderous. Mead had defended sociobiology—which could destroy her academic achievements—under the name of freedom. The plan to censure sociobiology teaching was defeated by 53 votes.

This shows how Mead was known for her intellectual charisma. In his book Eight Keys to Greatness: How to Unlock Your Hidden Potential, Gene N. Landrum wrote of how charismatic power invigorates those around us, almost enslaving them. He listed Mead among those with a belief in their own ability to accomplish anything and described her as emanating a mysterious aura overflowing with mental energy. He said people like Mead have the inner knowledge and presence to prevail over almost everyone.

According to Mead’s friends, her intellect had an erotic appeal that rendered others helpless. Her second husband described her as, “a woman who felt the power of life”. A young man who met Mead in 1973 said in response to Mead’s request for him to travel with her that he would have followed her into Hell.

The Margaret Mead stamp issued in 1998

Mead’s intellectual charisma was outstanding even in male-dominated academia. She was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science at the age of 72, only the second time in history a woman had held the position. The New York Times cited this as “one evidence of her formidable powers”.

Thrice married and thrice divorced, Mead remained confident in her private life even in the face of conservative views. To reports who asked why she’d divorced three times, she asked if they had forgotten to ask why she’d been passionately in love three times.

The New York Times obituary for Margaret Mead in 1978 described her as “not only an anthropologist and ethnologist of the first rank but also something of a national oracle on other subjects ranging from atomic politics to feminism.” Her funeral was held in Papua New Guinea, where she had done her fieldwork. The residents there mourned her for five days as if one of their chiefs had died. In other words, her charisma transcended the barriers of language and culture.

Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Perhaps some of our YooooN readers, following a leader with astounding intellectual charisma of her own, might have the power to change the world in this way.