6.3.4.4 The Need for Leaders to be Popular

(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/edition03/6344.htm)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, leaders receive more attention in the media for their personalities than for their team-management skills.  A leader’s public popularity and communication skills are important for the team as a whole to gain and retain power; this can tilt a political system towards personality politics (6.3.4.2) and it adversely affects the process for selecting leaders in both democratic and authoritarian political systems.

People’s votes in democratic elections are increasingly based upon their perceptions of the personality of the leader, rather than a party’s manifesto.  In an academic report on voting behaviour, Personality, transformational leadership, trust, and the 2000 U.S.  presidential vote, the authors found that

“Presidential personality and character are believed to hold the keys to performance in the office and have been scrutinized by voters during presidential campaigns in the past”.

Voters trust leaders who seem to be straightforward because they use simple language, and who project confidence.

Dictators come to power by being able to inspire, or at least control, their followers.  This does not necessarily mean that they would run a country in the interests of all the people.  The characteristics of a person who can seize power are aggression and self-confidence, which do not align with the need to listen to what the people want or, in the face of declining popularity, with the need to gracefully hand over power to someone else.

The focus on personality is magnified by television, which enables voters to become increasingly familiar with the behaviour of presidential candidates.  But the selection criteria for TV personalities do not match the job description for a good political leader – tending more towards charismatic than managerial.  The desire to be a celebrity is not necessarily linked to an ability to encourage a team to give its best performance (6.3.4.1).  An increased focus on policy might make it more likely that people would elect a leader who would serve their best interests.[1]

A popular leader can retain public acceptance even in times of hardship, but an unpopular leader is a liability to a political party.  Margaret Thatcher, for example, was replaced part-way through her last term of office because she was becoming unpopular.

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[1] Ronald Dworkin described American politics as “trivialised”, on the dust jacket of his book Is Democracy Possible Here?, and outlined the need for a more policy-focused public debate in chapter 5.