6.3.4.2 Personality Politics

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 if their characters are flawed – and some of the personal strengths which propelled them to leadership can become problems when they are in office.  The more dominant the leader, the more serious are the effects of their weaknesses.

Leaders who radiate certainty and power like Vladimir Putin: Russia’s action man president, an authoritarian populist who exploits nationalist sentiments (6.3.2.6), offer hope to the population.  Many Russians continue to support him, despite accusations of his corruption and his ruthlessness in retaining power by suppressing opposition.  Aspects of his personality have proved to be a problem for the country.  An Economist article, Writers have grappled with Vladimir Putin for two decades, quotes him as saying in an interview: “A dog senses when somebody is afraid of it …and bites.”  His aggression led to the disastrous invasion of Ukraine.

Egoism is another common weakness.  Donald Trump, who was another authoritarian populist, was boastful and vain.  As reported by Washington Post fact checkers: In four years, President Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims. He was trying to inflate his image without any regard to the truth – and many Americans believed what he said. 

Leaders can develop what Sir David Owen described as “The Hubris Syndrome”, in a book of that name.  He mentioned Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as examples of leaders who became so impatient of opposition that they refused to listen to anyone who suggested 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.

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 (8.7.6).

A streak of ruthlessness is a feature which many dominant leaders exhibit – and it can be a product of their education.  The callousness and greed of men like Boris Johnson and David Cameron is the product of a private education, according to Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the Guardian.  As a schoolmaster’s wife she had witnessed at first hand the de-sensitising of little boys, to cultivate fierce competitiveness; they are “[g]roomed too so they operate without penitence or shame and show no pity for those they harm”.

More than one in three British prime ministers went to Eton – but neither the playing fields of Eton nor being the children of rich parents are good foundations for political leaders: their casual sense of superiority, hubristic arrogance and lack of empathy make them unsuitable.  Boris Johnson’s sense of entitlement has made him tone deaf.  He apparently didn’t realise that holding Christmas parties in Downing Street, in the middle of a nationwide lockdown, would be greeted with anger and dismay; the newspaper headlines on 10 December 2021 commented on ‘One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us’ in what became known as the ‘Partygate’ scandal. 

It is dangerous for leaders to casually ignore detailed analysis when trying to appear strong and masculine.  In fighting the global COVID-19 pandemic, which is discussed later (6.7.5.5), Euronews reported that Female leaders were better at fighting coronavirus than men, study finds: “Countries led by women – including Germany and New Zealand – suffered half as many COVID-19 deaths on average as those headed by men, as well as fewer cases, thanks to proactive policies such as earlier lockdown measures.”  Perhaps the female leaders were more focused on trying to do a good job than on trying to burnish an image of invincibility.

All the leaders mentioned above, except those of Germany and New Zealand, were charismatic agents of change and they exemplified what is referred to in this book as ‘personality politics’.  They were initially popular, but serious criticisms can be levelled at them all.  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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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6342c.htm