In Praise of the Tribal Chief, Roman Reigns

Once upon a time, Roman Reigns was a struggling hero. Clearly inhibited, he was condemned to play a character he wasn’t, and the incongruity made for a white elephant. For years, Vince McMahon tried to get Roman Reigns accepted as the top hero in the company, but nothing worked, and he couldn’t stop because of his own ego and the sunk cost fallacy he had gotten himself into. But then, as if lightning struck, Roman Reigns emerged from his self-imposed quarantine this summer, reintroducing himself as this man…

The head of the table, YOUR tribal chief, Roman Reigns.

The character evolution of Roman Reigns over the past few months has been extraordinary and shows us in the fullest terms that charisma is changeable. Beyond a certain baseline and ceiling, it’s not something you either have or you don’t. It depends on the environment – the things people want to believe – and crafting a public persona that is both consistent with your true character and appropriately theatrical. You have to be uninhibited to not only show who you are, but make a spectacle of it. On being uninhibited, Robert Greene, in his Art of Seduction’s charismatic chapter, has this to say:

Most people are repressed, and have little access to their unconscious—a problem that creates opportunities for the Charismatic, who can become a kind of screen on which others project their secret fantasies and longings. You will first have to show that you are less inhibited than your audience—that you radiate a dangerous sexuality, have no fear of death, are delightfully spontaneous. Even a hint of these qualities will make people think you more powerful than you are. In the 1850s a bohemian American actress, Adah Isaacs Menken, took the world by storm through her unbridled sexual energy, and her fearlessness. She would appear on stage half-naked, performing death-defying acts; few women could dare such things in the Victorian period, and a rather mediocre actress became a figure of cultlike adoration.

An extension of your being uninhibited is a dreamlike quality in your work and character that reveals your openness to your unconscious. It was the possession of this quality that transformed artists like Wagner and Picasso into charismatic idols. Its cousin is a fluidity of body and spirit; while the repressed are rigid, Charismatics have an ease and an adaptability that show their openness to experience.

When you look at Roman Reigns, particularly from early 2015 to his cancer diagnosis in 2018, you see a man that was inhibited in every way. He couldn’t express his true character and traits because of Vince McMahon’s terrible scripting of him. Fans had noticed and pointed that out for years. Even as they booed Roman Reigns, they knew he had so much more in him than WWE was allowing him to show. The lawful good babyface was never a good role for his personality. Everyone wanted him to turn heel.

But when Roman Reigns finally did turn heel and unveil the “tribal chief” persona, he exceeded expectations. As the tribal chief, Roman Reigns is completely uninhibited. Look at his body language, his expressions, his tone of voice. Nothing is holding him back. He fully expresses the dark side of his character that was always lurking there and amplifies it with a lawful evil disposition. For what is there to do for a tribal chief but to impose law? This leads us into the theatrical persona that meets with Roman Reigns’ uninhibitness to make for lightning in a bottle.

The Orwellian Persona

One of Roman Reigns’ other new nicknames is “Head of the Table.” This is not just a title conveying power, but also responsibility. The tribal chief Roman Reigns has a dimension to his character where he believes he is providing something akin to a social contract. Namely, Roman Reigns is the top draw, the marquee, the guy who makes things happen – and he can make it happen for you, too, even if you’re his opponent, as long as you respect his authority and obey his rules. If not, there will be “consequences.”

We saw this Orwellian side of his character when he began his feud with Jey Uso, who he wanted to bring in line. He needed Jey’s acknowledgement as the tribal chief and was willing to give in return, namely, a measure of success. Make no mistake, though, the championship needed to stay where it was, for the good of the family.

Jey Uso got a title shot at Clash of Champions, but as he never acknowledged his cousin as the tribal chief, he received a brutal beating. The next week, Roman Reigns informed him that he “was just trying to get your name on the marquee – to give you a good payday, to buy your wife nice things.”

In true Orwellian fashion, the brutal rule of the tribal chief is done for the good of the subjects. Actually, you’re the one that’s bad for not acknowledging the goodness of it!

Everything he does these days can be seen as propaganda. Consider last week’s fantastic segment when a new title match with Kevin Owens was made. It was tense, but actually, it was the interviewer’s fault for asking stupid questions, and as the official propaganda organ of the tribal chief, Paul Heyman laid down the narrative:

Kayla, in the past five weeks, who has main evented SmackDown each and every solitary week? The answer to that rhetorical question is Jey Uso. How have the ratings been? According to my friends in analytics at FOX network, the ratings have been on the highest surge of the entire calendar of 2020. Why? Because of “Main Event” Jey Uso. Is that a manipulation? No. Roman Reigns has given his entire family something to aspire to. Roman Reigns is a motivator. Roman Reigns is a…

The decision to pair this tribal chief persona with Paul Heyman was brilliant, and the final piece of the puzzle to make it truly superb. Heyman serves not merely as the hype man he had been with Brock Lesnar, but as a Minister of Truth, a man whose task is to make the unreal mandatory. There was no deception involved with Brock Lesnar. He was just a man that was going to beat your ass and Paul Heyman sold him that way. With Roman Reigns, he’s going to beat your ass alright, but not just for its own sake, but for the good of the WWE and his own family, who without him, would not have “food on the table.” If the tribal chief is successful – however that success happens – then his family and the company will be successful, too and he will enforce this rule with whatever means are required.

That’s the brilliance of the act. He is not a one-dimensional heel, but one with contradictory traits – caring family/company man and brutal thug – that add up to something you want to see more of. The man behind the character is completely uninhibited, casting all doubts into the flames and letting part of his own personality get amplified into theatrics.

Tribal Chief Roman Reigns

I’d only be preaching to the choir if I said that the tribal chief Roman Reigns is the best thing to happen to professional wrestling in a long, long time, but it’s true nevertheless. He has made SmackDown must-watch every week. If you’re not watching, you’re missing out.

And even if you’re not a fan of professional wrestling, he’s worth watching as a lesson on charisma, interpersonal psychology, persona development, and theatricality. That’s the draw of the sport to begin with.

For more lessons on developing charisma and force of personality, read Lives of the Luminaries, because the biographies there are filled with them.

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