6.3.4.2 Personality Politics

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6342.htm)

Charismatic leaders can exert enormous influence over the behaviour of their followers: their self-confidence inspires others to believe what they say.  They can drive through radical programmes, overcoming people’s resistance to change, but they might not govern wisely:

  • Nigel Farage attracted support by presenting a façade that people could identify with, speaking as if he was the same sort of person as his supporters, but he had a privileged background and was wealthy; as Nick Cohen wrote in a Guardian article, Nigel Farage is a phoney.  Scrutinise him and he’ll crumble.  A similar charge might be levelled at Donald Trump.  Both leaders are authoritarian populists, exploiting nationalist sentiments (3.2.6).
  • Leaders who radiate certainty and power like Vladimir Putin: Russia’s action man president, who is another authoritarian populist, offer hope to the population. Many Russians continue to support him, despite accusations of his corruption and his ruthlessness in suppressing opposition.
  • Leaders can develop what has been described as ‘hubris syndrome’,[1] becoming so impatient of opposition that they refuse to listen to anyone who suggests that they may be making a mistake. Margaret Thatcher was reported as exhibiting this form of hubris towards the end of her time in office, for example on the issue of ‘poll tax’ which resulted in public riots – as described in the BBC article Violence flares in poll tax demonstration.  She increasingly ignored both public feeling and the advice of her colleagues, leading Sir Geoffrey Howe to note, in his resignation speech, the frustration felt by those working for her:

“It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

  • Hubris not only affects a leader’s relationship with colleagues; it can include the delusion of infallibility – where having a clear ‘big picture’ makes the leader feel that detailed analysis and planning would merely give rise to confusion and delay. There is evidence that this was the case when Tony Blair overrode the advice he received about the risks of invading Iraq, as described later (7.6).
  • A leader might be initially popular, but might then wish to retain power and might ultimately damage the country. For example, the BBC posed the question: Robert Mugabe: Is Zimbabwe’s ex-president a hero or villain?, noting that

“For some, he will always remain a hero who brought independence and an end to white-minority rule. Even those who forced him out blamed his wife and “criminals” around him.

But to his growing number of critics, this highly educated, wily politician became the caricature of an African dictator, who destroyed an entire country in order to keep his job.”

All these leaders were charismatic agents of change, and all exemplified what is referred to in this book as ‘personality politics’.  They were initially popular, but serious criticisms can be levelled at them all – and some tried to retain power even when they were no longer popular, as reviewed in the next sub-section (6.3.4.3).  Personality politics is a risk, except for short periods in exceptional circumstances.  A team-based approach is less likely to run astray and is more able to exploit the different strengths of its members.

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[1] Sir David Owen described “The Hubris Syndrome”, in a book of that name, as a medical condition.  In chapter 1, he described Margaret Thatcher’s career as “almost a model case of a political leader succumbing to hubris syndrome” later in her career.  In chapter 2 he described Tony Blair as having the problem.