Style

Gordon Brown's new role means he must work quickly to put over a more polished image, writes psychol

What makes an effective leader? Is appearance and personality more important than the central role of being a Prime Minister where substance is of the essence? It’s difficult to predict if a leader is going to be effective from these factors alone.

William Hague, Iain Duncan-Smith and Michael Howard – ex-Conservative party leaders failed to hack it against the Labour party. When John Major was Prime Minister he was known as the ‘grey man’. People forgot what he achieved in this role - they were more interested in his personal attributes.

None of these ex-leaders had charisma. Tony Blair had great charisma – but he was well packaged by a group of image-makers and spin doctors to perfect his user-friendly image. His exit as Premier was yet another public relations exercise.

Just a few days into Gordon Brown’s premiership and we are beginning to see some interesting changes taking place in his appearance and behaviour. He’s more media friendly, he’s smiling more and his hair is neater.

Brown has waited in the wings for a long time to become Prime Minister. His role is now different to that of Chancellor of the Exchequer. He has to work quickly to put over a more polished image. Powerful orators have disappeared – Lloyd George, Winston Churchill - are figures of a bygone age.

People remember images more than they remember rambling verbalisations. Ninety-three percent of the time we communicate with others non-verbally. We are now left with media impression management.

John F Kennedy’s relaxed television appearance on a public debate with Richard Nixon in 1960, boosted his election campaign and helped win him the Presidency. Nixon looked uncomfortable – particularly with his sweaty upper lip.

We are yet to witness the happy, snappy pictures of Gordon Brown grabbing the hands of the would-be voters, kissing the babies, wooing celebrities at No. 10, being on the Simpsons, and playing football with the local lads. Tony Blair scored well here – except when he was confronted by a voter complaining about the National Health Service.

No doubt Brown will have an army of ‘image-makers’ busily carving out a new image for him. Maybe they will make him more adventurous in his choice of shirts, ties and cut of suit and curb him of his drooping jaw, and engaging him in a number of photo-shoots with celebrities. Is there another Alastair Campbell around to advise him?

How often have we witnessed the rise of the celebrity – not by what they say, but how they present themselves? These so-called celebrities are continuing loom on our television screens. What is even more tragic is that the public lap it up and demand more from these non-people.

Following in Blair’s footsteps will not be an easy task for Brown. Hopefully, Brown will offer a different type of leadership than Blair. Hopefully, the public will wake up and realise that substance is more important than a carefully manipulated media image to grab voters and popularity. I doubt it.

Self-presentation is far more important than substance and Brown has got a lot to learn in this domain. Reorganising the National Health System – wrapped up in Bureaucracy - where there are more chiefs than Indians; addressing the housing shortage problem; and reducing income tax may win votes. But the way the message is delivered has a more far-reaching effect than words.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

Susan Marchant-Haycox is a lecturer at Birkbeck College, University of London. She also lectures extensively abroad on cross-cultural relations including non-verbal communication