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No Charisma? Don’t Worry, You Can Still Be a Leader

8 minute read
Michael Elliott

Leadership, to Americans, is a familiar concept. Go into any bookstore, and the number of tomes with the word in the title–Total Leadership, The Leadership Code, Leadership for Dummies (of course)–can make you think it has replaced dieting as a way to move merchandise. Listen to politicians’ stump speeches, and it will be seconds before you hear them extol their unique leadership qualities.

But leadership, at least in the way that it’s understood in the U.S., is not an idea–or even a word–that travels very well. It’s remarkably hard to convey in French, while Germans routinely go through linguistic contortions to avoid reminding themselves that the natural translation of leader is Führer.

A century ago, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, famously divided sources of authority into three types: the traditional, the charismatic and the legal-bureaucratic. Americans like their leaders to be charismatic–a word derived from the Greek that means a person has a gift of grace. Political parties routinely look for presidential candidates with charisma (Barack Obama, naturally) and regret it when they don’t find one (think Michael Dukakis).

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Charismatic leaders, Weber argued, inspire devotion; they are change agents. But not every society wants or needs charismatic leaders, and some have reason to shun them. The Big Men of Africa and the caudillos of Latin America have often been charismatic, and their gift to their people was not grace but authoritarianism. So can you be a leader without charisma? Sure. Just follow these tips.

It’s what you do that counts

Since JFK, who has a lot to answer for when it comes to the overvaluation of charisma, Americans have liked their leaders to be handsome or heroic, preferably with a thatch of dark hair and a trim waistline. It doesn’t always work (otherwise Mitt Romney would be in the White House) but it does mean that it’s not surprising that two of the foreign leaders who have most made an impression in the U.S. are the young Tony Blair and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. (And Sarkozy–to add to the JFK meme–has the extra advantage of a fashion-plate wife.)

But good looks and 25¢ will get you a phone call. Australia has a higher proportion of naturally rugged men than any other country on Earth, but combined, its two most recent Prime Ministers, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, have the sex appeal of a church mouse. Who cares? Both have made tough calls–Howard to back the U.S. through thick and thin after 9/11, Rudd to apologize for the treatment of Australia’s Aborigines–and they’ve been stewards of one of the world’s longest-lasting economic booms.

Besides, a certain homely style can make your adversaries underestimate you. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may look like a typical hausfrau, but don’t cross her. “She’s ruthless,” says a political insider in Berlin. “She doesn’t just sideline her opponents; she destroys them.”

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Different situations require different styles

Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. Secretary-General, was subject to a bitter attack in Foreign Policy magazine recently for “frittering away influence” at a time when “global leadership is urgently needed.” But Tim Wirth, president of the U.N. Foundation, argues that Ban’s critics miss the point. The U.N., Wirth says, is not a vertical institution but a horizontal one, with 192 nation-states acting as shareholders. Ban can’t tell the U.N.’s members–or even its agencies–what to do. He has to negotiate and coordinate, find a consensus. He manages to do that, Wirth says, by “keeping his own sense of ego out of the line of fire.” Ban himself expresses pleasure that he has been able to lead the U.N. to take climate change seriously. But he is much more comfortable talking about his role in terms of “bridging the developed and developing countries” than in the straightforward language of leadership.

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When leaders understand the nature of their followers, they can get away with an awful lot. My friend Beppe Severgnini, a columnist at Corriere della Sera, says Italians forgive Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s many–how shall we put this?–lapses in judgment because they think, He’s one of us. Berlusconi, Severgnini wrote this year, is “not only Italy’s head of government, but the nation’s autobiography.” By contrast, when a leader gets out of sync with her followers, all the brilliance in the world doesn’t amount to much. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher found that out in 1990, when her colleagues in the British government and Conservative Party simply got tired of the endless drama over Thatcher’s European policy and dumped her.

A good speech may get you on YouTube. But that’s all

A speech by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it has been said, is a natural remedy for sleep disorders. During a raucous debate on a vote of confidence in the Indian Parliament last year, Singh’s closing speech was so subdued that it was drowned out by the opposition. Singh folded up his notes and just submitted the rest of his remarks for the record.

Still, he won the vote and then a sweeping victory in India’s general elections this year. It isn’t Singh’s speeches that win him followers; it’s the fact that first as Finance Minister and since 2004 as Prime Minister, he has led India through a series of radical economic reforms that have made the world’s largest democracy also one of its fastest-growing economies–and protected the poor too. It’s Singh’s actions that have changed tens of millions of lives for the better, not his words.

Helmut Kohl could relate. In the 1980s, Germans used to make fun of their Chancellor for his thick Rhineland accent and stumbling speeches. But when more-elegant and eloquent statesmen were dithering after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kohl seized the moment. He propelled East and West Germany to unification within a year, while others thought that unification, if it happened at all, was a distant prospect. It was Kohl’s decisiveness that made him a leader, not his honeyed tone.

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Try, try and try again

It was Winston Churchill who once enjoined an audience to “never give in; never, never, never give in,” and he knew whereof he spoke. Churchill spent the 1930s in the political wilderness, warning of the need to rearm against the Nazi threat, and was treated as a bit of a joke by smaller men.

Michael Mandelbaum of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University says resistance in the face of adversity is a key quality in a leader. He cites Thatcher, whose sheer bloody determination saw off a hostile intelligentsia, a party that sometimes treated her with all the condescension the British once reserved for clever women, and entrenched interests that fought her economic and social reforms. Before he became Prime Minister in 1996, Australia’s Howard had been turfed out as leader of his own party, and when asked if he might ever lead it again, he said such an event would be like “Lazarus with a triple bypass.” Howard then went on to win four general elections.

Wirth praises Ban Ki-moon for the same quality of persistence. The U.N., Wirth says, gets dumped with the problems that great powers can’t solve, like nudging the regime in Burma into improving its miserable human-rights record or bringing peace to Darfur in southern Sudan, where bitter fighting raged for years. The U.N. had long been unable to come to any consensus on how to handle Darfur, with deep divisions in the Security Council about whether and how to send a peacekeeping force there. Wirth praises Ban’s diplomatic skills in finally getting Security Council approval for a joint U.N.–African Union peacekeeping force for the region.

Leadership means you don’t duck when things go wrong

Young or old, handsome or plain, quiet or loud–the surest way to win followers is to convince them that when the going gets tough, you won’t run and hide. There’s a reason Harry Truman’s White House desk sign, the buck stops here, has entered presidential mythology.

But my favorite example of leadership as responsibility is a memo that was never sent. The day before the D-day landings in 1944, Dwight Eisenhower–not much obvious charisma there–sat down and wrote a short message that would be made public in the event that the next day went horribly wrong. “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold,” Ike wrote, “and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”

That’s leadership.

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