During a recent political discussion with a friend of mine, we began comparing the two leaders of the dominant political parties. We share a mutual scepticism of the current government’s straight-laced frontman David Cameron, singing hymns to Mrs. Thatcher in a public school choir falsetto. Then it came to Ed Milliband: this was when our opinions began to branch. One of the points raised was Milliband’s vaunted lack of ‘charisma’. We agreed that this tricky little political buzzword needed greater public scrutiny before it damaged the political system any more than it already has.
Of course charisma has historically been associated with great leaders, from Julius Caesar to Winston Churchill, but it seems that when examining other attributes you want to see in a leader, charisma becomes what oil is to a well-built machine. It makes the whole process run more smoothly. These parts, to name but a few, are: ability to cope under pressure, economic acumen, firm personal morality, intelligent allocation of people and resources, the list goes on. If all these things can be done: good and better so if they can be delivered with charisma but charisma comes in to support the important qualities, not the other way around. To berate a politician for being uncharismatic when the real problem lies in their grasp of economics is like complaining that your recent leg amputation challenges your ability to wear designer jeans.
As with all nebulous improper nouns the word ‘charisma’ could do with a bit of interrogation. Charisma is defined as ‘a charm that can inspire devotion in others’, if it is inspiration that is in question then the traditional image of the alpha-male with the tip-ex teeth and the snappy one liners starts to look suspect, if not wholly inadequate. To inspire others you do not need to lead from the front pumping your chest and blowing the bugle horn. You can quietly lead by example, in the way Paul Scholes does in the Manchester United midfield. Each person will find inspiration from a different source, and it takes a truly exceptional leader to recognise and utilise various ways of getting the best out of people, rather than a unitary expectation of people and forcing them into that mould.
Charisma is not unimportant, it is misunderstood and misrepresented. I can only hope that one day we will learn to appreciate it in its true form and be able to assess our leaders in a more rounded and level-headed manner. However, as media hegemony changes at about the same rate as American fundamentalism I do not hold out much hope of this being any time soon. In the mean time I cling to the idea that there are many people out there who already do evaluate people in this way, and to those people I can only say keep it up, I’m right behind you.