In praise of Britain’s uncharismatic leaders

Not all politicians with charisma will be like Nelson Mandela – they could be like Donald Trump.

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As an American living in London in 2008, I recall the envy expressed by many of my British friends when Barack Obama was elected US president. To them, British leaders, in comparison, seemed uninspiring. Nine years later, after having served in the Obama administration, I have returned briefly to the UK to find many Britons now envious of France, with its new president Emmanuel Macron.

Central to Obama’s and Macron’s electoral success was their charisma, which Max Weber, the influential German sociologist, described as a quality that leaders possess that inspires “complete personal devotion”.  While all politicians must possess a modicum of charisma to get elected, it is not as decisive in national leadership contests in the UK, as it is in the United States and France. This is not simply because British reserve minimises its importance. It is because the UK’s parliamentary system of government, unlike the American presidential and French semi-presidential systems, prioritises party over personality. 

In America and France, presidents are elected directly by voters, whereas in the UK, party leaders become prime minister only if their party wins a parliamentary majority or if they can form and lead a governing coalition. This requires climbing the greasy pole of party politics, which can take years. As charismatic leadership is increasingly associated with political rookies and outsiders, the British system, which is unconducive to such newcomers, inevitably reduces the risks associated with such leadership. 

Although charismatic leaders, who challenge the status quo and possess powerful communicative abilities, can inspire, mobilise, and transform their nations, there is no guarantee that every such leader will be like Nelson Mandela; they could be like Donald Trump, or worse.

Even if well intentioned, charismatic leaders can be problematic. According to the findings of a recent study published by the American Psychological Association in an article entitled “The Double-Edged Sword of Leader Charisma”, business leaders possessing high levels of charisma were very competent strategically but ineffective operationally. The study found that leaders with moderate charisma, on the other hand, were optimally effective in terms of both strategy and operations. Other risks relating to charismatic political leaders is that they can create unfulfilled expectations, resulting in a disappointed and dejected electorate. This may lead to lower voter turn-out and push disillusioned voters to extreme alternatives. 

Charisma plays an important role in American and French politics, where leaders are not only heads of government but also heads of state, with symbolic and ceremonial functions. As virtually anyone can run for president in these countries, they are vulnerable to charismatic rookies and outsiders. Political newcomers can mobilise large segments of the population by transmitting and amplifying their messages online, via smartphones and social networking sites. Their inexperience can be perceived as a sign of authenticity, and a fresh approach. Lacking a political record, which can be vulnerable to opponents’ attacks, can also be viewed as a strength.

Obama launched his presidential campaign after having served just two years in the US Senate. Macron and Trump never held elected political office before winning their countries’ presidencies (Macron held government positions but Trump never did). All three were celebrities during their campaigns who confounded the political establishment with their lack of record and their innovative uses of big data, Facebook and Twitter.

The UK’s two-party-dominated parliamentary system makes it very difficult for a political newcomer to become prime minister from contesting a parliamentary election for the first time, and all MPs, regardless of their charisma, must work their way up party ranks. Even Tony Blair, considered highly charismatic, had already been opposition leader for three years and an MP for 14 when he became prime minister in 1997.

Although charisma may win French and American elections, it is not enough to govern. For that, leaders everywhere need operational savvy, as well as a good temperament and sound judgement. Past performance is the best predictor for a politician’s future performance. Despite his many gifts, Obama’s ineffectual dealings with a hostile congress were no surprise, given his limited national and executive political experience before becoming president. While too soon to judge Macron’s performance, it was foreseeable that Trump’s intemperate behaviour would polarise America and diminish its international stature.

Although Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, with over half a century of combined experience in parliament, may seem boring and imperfect in different ways, they are still better prepared to deal with today’s challenges than charismatic newcomers. The choice in the UK is less about ability and more about which of the divergent visions espoused by the two major political parties will best address Britain’s challenges. 

Both visions are measured when compared to the one embraced by Donald Trump in the US. Now many of my fellow Americans, with a new-found appreciation of the British parliamentary system, would prefer leaders like the ones in Britain – regardless of their politics – to the leader that they have.

Arslan Malik is a visiting fellow of practice at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford.  He previously held positions at the US Department of State in Washington, DC

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