Why Britain should beware of charismatic leaders promising easy Brexit solutions
By Stefan Stern, Visiting Professor of Management Practice at Cass Business School, and Jon Stokes, Senior Fellow in Management Practice at University of Oxford.
“Why don’t you resign?” shouted a heckler at the prime minister during the Conservative party’s Welsh conference, before adding, in case anyone had misunderstood him: “We don’t want you.”
The heckler was escorted out. But he seemingly spoke for many Conservative party members who have lost faith in Theresa May and are now looking for new leadership.
“The problem is Theresa May. Not her policies. Not her Withdrawal Agreement. Her.” Wrote the MEP Daniel Hannan in the Sunday Telegraph. This is all getting rather personal.
The mess and chaos of Brexit is intensely complicated. And yet some still hope a quick and simple solution might be achievable. The quickest and simplest solution, apparently, would be to install a new leader – someone with nerve, daring and, of course, charisma. But research into charismatic leadership reveals a number of reasons to be sceptical of these kinds of leaders.
The more uncertain the world is the more likely it is we seek charismatic leaders. They can have an overwhelming appeal. We want leaders who reduce uncertainty and provide simple answers. Charisma draws us in, entertains us, flatters us, and instils that elusive feelgood factor.
We find someone charismatic because they seem to represent an ideal we admire. The word charisma means “gift of grace”. In fact, the gift comes from our imagination – the appeal of the charismatic leader comes from us projecting our ideal self, who we would like to be, on to them.
Although charismatic leaders may make us feel more confident and optimistic, the unconscious mechanisms underlying charismatic leadership diminish and weaken those who follow. We fall in love with this projected form, making us vulnerable to manipulation. When we fall in love with leaders, we fall in love with who we aspire to be, our ideal – to which they inevitably fail to live up. And so they disappoint, and so we move on.
Leadership does not reside in a single person, but in the relationship between follower and leader. Like beauty, leadership to a large extent exists in the eye of the beholder. Some of the confusion in the debate about what makes for a good leader exists because we have been looking in the wrong place, at an attribute of a person, rather than a relationship.
A healthier alternative
There is an alternative and that’s inspiring leadership. Where charismatic relationships are self-centred, focusing on the charismatic individual and the self-interest of the followers, inspiring leadership focuses on the real interests and actual abilities of those who follow, and their development.
We could almost draw a comparison with the “thinking, fast and slow” ideas of the psychologist Daniel Kahneman.
Charismatic leadership is fast and, following Kahneman’s ideas, emotionally contagious – it brings instant delight and is designed for uniting and fighting. Inspiring leadership is a slower burn, but developmental and more nutritious – it is designed for collaborating and learning.
The fast form of leadership is focused on survival and self-interest and is unconscious, pleasure-seeking and mindless. The slow form of leadership is for building relationships and is conscious and chosen. It is relational and mindful. People and groups are objects of desire but also of concern.
Inspiring leaders work more slowly, with thought – the relationship is mindful and influence is two-way. They lead by example, believing in the potential of their followers to develop their abilities and performance. This is leadership built on learning rather than love at first sight.
Instead of pretending “as if” we have the answer – the result of magical, charismatic, thinking – the inspiring leader asks “what if” we could together make things different, and how we might do this. It is the politics of potential rather than the politics of salvation. The charismatic leader, on the other hand, claims to have the answer already. It requires no work and is obvious.
Managers are often advised that they should become more “charismatic”. This is a mistake – most people are not, and never will be, charismatic. Which is not to decry charismatic leaders altogether. Each leadership approach has its place, as long as we recognise which belongs where. The central mistake in the discussion on leadership has been to focus on the person of the leader rather than on the relationship of leadership, between the leader and followers.
But what of the UK’s current political situation? Is there a charismatic leader out there who might come to the rescue? Seasoned commentator, Trevor Kavanagh is in no doubt. “Boris [Johnson] is the charismatic vote-winner MPs hope will save their seats”, he wrote in The Sun.
Others are not so certain. In the FT, the well-connected Europe editor Tony Barber revealed that Johnson “is scorned in EU capitals as an infantile populist”.
Few (if any) complicated problems have simple solutions. The disaster of Brexit will not be fixed quickly by a dashing deus ex machina. This won’t stop several people claiming, of course, that they are precisely that person.