The Great Smell of Brute?

The charisma thing has, it seems, raised its perfectly groomed head once more. The always readable Mervyn Dinnen blogged in response to a Guardian article by Jonathan Freedland, both exploring the apparent gap between the type of leaders we elect or support, and the kind of leaders we might choose if perhaps we put a bit more thought into the process. As is customary in contemporary business blogging circles, lines from a song were quoted. I think this is primarily an attribute of the demographic profile of bloggers, and can only plead guilty. And as songs go, Paul Weller’s Going Underground has retained the lyrical and emotive power it originally had around the time I heard being blasted live from the back of flat-bed trucks at various protests and marches in the early 1980s. Personally, however, I might have chosen a line a few bars further into the song that strikes me as both truer and considerably more cynical: “The public wants what the public gets”.

That’s not a suggestion of subservience, masochism or blind obedience, by the way. I think it’s rather closer to Gareth Jones’ observation, posted as a comment to Mervyn Dinnen’s blog post:

When you live in a bubble, that is all you know. If, for example you have 2 large dogs in your household then you house is likely to smell of dogs. You won’t notice the smell as you will be used to it. Even when you pop out to work or for a night out you won’t notice it when you come back. It’s only when you leave it for an extended period of time that you notice it smells of dogs.  However, when someone visits they can smell it but are mostly too polite to mention it.” 

Gareth’s point is about being in touch – having sufficient contact with ‘visitors’ that someone eventually has the audacity to mention the dreadful pong and suggest something is done about it. There’s a lot to be said for a breath of fresh air, after all. But Gareth’s point is also that the issue, nebulous as it might be, is systemic.

Recent research about the tendency of senior leaders to show levels of sociopathic personality traits well above societal norms was raised in another comment. Contemplating this in the light of Freedland’s article suggests that we get the types of leader that we do as they are the types most likely to put themselves forward to consideration. There are some famous adages about the desire to run for the highest offices being the surest sign that someone should be considered unfit to occupy them. If the trials and tribulations of the Republican Party in the 2012 primaries don’t provide sufficient fuel for that particular fire, research showing that senior leaders are four times as likely to be clinical psychopaths should do the job, surely?

There’s obviously a supply and demand element to the question of the nature of our chosen leaders, but it’s depressing to think that such a reductionist free-market analogy explains everything away. I wonder if there aren’t also issues of expectation and of what psychologists call projection. Think of it as a parallel with the nutshell version of the atheist’s view of the religious instinct. As a species, we’re unable to accept that things are as they are because .. well, it’s a) a result of an unfathomably complex matrix of factors, and b) that’s too easy or obvious. We invest hope in the existence of something all-seeing, all-doing and above all immensely capable.

That’s not to say we necessarily think of leaders as gods, but we want them on pedestals as well as platforms and podiums. We want to believe in something less fallible than ourselves. It would certainly explain why we are drawn to what Freedland so beautifully described as “the jaw-jutting certainty, the alpha confidence”. (Trying to ignore that whiffy mutt analogy for a moment, it’s not necessarily an aftershave-advert style masculine stereotype. If you’ve not seen The Iron Lady yet, one scene tellingly touches on the ‘makeover’ Lady Thatcher underwent to project a more confident, forceful and authoritative figure. The advisors seemed pretty certain that what needed attention if electability was going to be achieved was the packaging, not the content.)

How far are we attracted to leaders as confident folk on whom we can project our dream of a better, brighter tomorrow, which they can bring about with their supreme boldness? I remember, many years ago, being at (of all places) an Arts Council book launch for an anthology of contemporary British poetry. The many years ago being more precisely 1983 with a general election looming, and poets being the observant, verbally dextrous people that they were, the then emerging SDP were one topic of conversation. One of those present reworked the acronym as ‘Synthetic Dream Peddlers’, which we all agreed was very witty. Drinking may have been involved.

But to return to a quote that’s featured in this blog before, a key member of the Social Democratic Party might well have been alert to the possibility that the rechristening had an element of truth to it:

Charisma, charm, the ability to inspire, persuasiveness, breadthof vision, willingness to take risks, grandiose aspirationsand bold self-confidence – these qualities are often associatedwith successful leadership. Yet there is another side to thisprofile, for these very same qualities can be marked by impetuosity,a refusal to listen to or take advice and a particular formof incompetence when impulsivity, recklessness and frequentinattention to detail predominate. This can result in disastrousleadership and cause damage on a large scale.”

The words are those of Lord Owen, writing (in his medical capacity) about the potential for hubris in leaders. Last time we quoted them, we were thinking along the lines of how leaders can watch themselves for warning signs. Reading Freedland, Dinnen and Jones, maybe it’s not the leaders who need to be doing the self-awareness check. Maybe it’s ourselves we should be worrying about, pausing to reflect on what our attraction to ‘wrong uns’ should be telling us about ourselves. Should we have more faith in the possibility of a positive outcome, and therefore have less need for some imposing figure to jut their jawline into the breeze and lead us all boldly to glory?

Or perhaps try to restrain our hopes and be a little more realistic – downbeat, even – about what the future might actually hold. One man widely quoted on all things future-related (much, I suspect to his wry amusement) is author William Gibson, whose thoughts on this theme are among those captured in a recently published anthology of his non-fiction writing:

Alvin Toffler warned us about Future Shock, but is this Future Fatigue? For the past decade or so, the only critics of science fiction I pay any attention to, all three of them, have been slyly declaring that the Future is over. I wouldn’t blame anyone for assuming that this is akin to the declaration that history was over, and just as silly. But really I think they’re talking about the capital-F Future, which in my lifetime has been a cult, if not a religion.

[…] This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing. It indicates a kind of maturity, an understanding that every future is someone else’s past, every present someone else’s future. Upon arriving in the capital-F Future, we discover it, invariably, to be the lower-case now.”

Sensible maturity is, of course, less sexy and far less telegenic than heroic optimism. Reflect on the number of candidates you’ve heard written off as ‘lacking charisma’, without much thought for whether they could demonstrate a sharp-mind grasp of complex situations and an ability to arrive at sound judgements. (Off the top of my head, I was intrigued to find I could think of only two exceptions: Tom winning the last series of The Apprentice, and François Hollande, currently in possible contention not just for the Presidency of France but the highly coveted Dull Man of the Year award.)

Our accelerated and media-saturated age probably contributes to a vicious circle in which time isn’t allowed for the rational, intelligent, sensitively explored approach to a subject that not only demonstrates sound judgement but helps more of us to arrive at it. Try getting that in a tweet. Or on a scrolling news ticker. (How many media editors would pause for thought when they find themselves about to shriek at a sub-ed something to the effect of: “We haven’t got time for the truth. Give me something snappier!”?)

The 21st century may turn out to be radically different from the past, or it might turn out to be closer to Gibson’s perception of how we are likely to experience it:

Ahead of us, there is merely … more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian.”

But maybe Gareth Jones is right about leadership stereotypes and paradigms being systemic. If we want a different kind of leader in whichever future we hope to have, we will need to be a very different kind of follower.

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