Charismatic leaders have the ability to communicate with people and lead on a profound, emotional level. They have the ability to articulate a captivating or compelling vision and evoke strong emotions in their followers.
Think of Steve Jobs and Richard Branson, or maybe less positively, Hitler.
Charismatic leadership is essentially a process, a series of interactions between the characteristics of a charismatic leader; the group, or tribe, that feels inspired to follow them, how that tribe identifies with their leader, and the circumstances and events that create the space for a charismatic leader to emerge.
The stars have to align but the what allows the charismatic leader to succeed initially, is their ability to communicate with members of their tribe, gain their trust and inspire them in a call to action.
A plethora of politicians over the years have developed the skill to effectively communicate; working the crowd and appealing to both financial backers and voters. For many of those politicians who have exuded an overwhelming amount of personal charisma, becoming a leader never happens, because they perhaps don’t have an underlying political acumen; the political landscape isn’t right or their charisma lands them in trouble.
When the stars do align, the charismatic leader can have a tremendous impact in galvanising a party and a nation.
Tony Blair found a sweet spot in time to lead Britain out of eighteen years of Conservative political domination. Barrack Obama was the right leader, at the right time, to lead the USA towards a more compassionate future. For Obama, his intellect, integrity and strength of character complemented his charisma to ensure that his reputation will live long after his term in office. For Blair, a fateful decision over the Iraq war left his leadership credentials rather tarnished.
In our time, both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have had that ability to connect with people, even though both are, quite often, anything but eloquent. Their supporters have turned them in to superheroes, capable of making America great again and delivering Brexit.
They have both managed to find and court their tribes. They have allowed their egos to be massaged by those around them to the point that they find themselves in leadership positions that neither is equipped for, both in terms of acumen and integrity. Their propaganda machines have turned them in to super-leaders, urging their followers ever onwards, building that wall or getting Brexit done. The Messiah leading their people towards a new kingdom.
The problem with being the Messiah is that it appeals to very base instincts, to the narcissism of those in leadership roles who dream of being heroic, and to the dependency needs of their followers, who want to be saved or, at least, led to a better future by their Messiah. Neither is a healthy place to be and is only sustainable if, as the Messiah, you’re delivering what you promised.
When all you have is bluff, bluster and a winning smile you have to resort to fake news and lies on the side of a bus. And when the propaganda machine starts to creak and the cracks in the varnish begin to show, it’s not long before the emperor’s new clothes fall away. What is revealed is a rather unattractive personification of the charismatic leader, lacking in integrity and authenticity, ready to say whatever it takes to allow them to cling on to power.
For Trump and Boris time seems to be running out in parallel and a race to the bottom appears to be materialising between them. Their character flaws are beginning to become more important than their charisma and the end is in sight for both.
The question is, who will be the first to resign or be thrown out of office?