Why it's all about the L-factor (...likeability)
Politicians are trained to be affable to be electable. But can you be an effective leader without being cuddly? Lise Hand reports
Published 10/10/2015 | 02:30
Concerned about her chilly public persona, Bill Clinton persuaded Hillary to enlist movie maestro Steven Spielberg to coach her speeches and soften body language in an effort to boost her likeability.
"The challenge is to repackage you in 2016 as a strong but lovable older woman," Bill allegedly told his wife.
But the experiment, recounted in a new book on the Democratic frontrunner for the presidential nomination, reportedly didn't end well. Hillary is said to have told a friend: "I decided I had enough with the camera and the recordings and the coaches. I got so angry I knocked the f**king camera off its tripod."
The story is in the biography by journalist Edward Klein titled, Unlikeable: The Problem with Hillary.
And the title gets to the nub of the Clinton conundrum; despite her storied CV as former First Lady, former Secretary of State and former US Senator she is widely deemed deficient in the L-Factor -Likeability.
It was a pointless exercise anyway; the voters know Hillary isn't cuddly - after all, it's over two decades since she rejected the traditional wifey role expected of US First Ladies, when she remarked during her husband's 1992 campaign, "You know, I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas, but what I decided to do was fulfill my profession, which I entered before my husband was in public life".
Cue outrage from stay-at-home-moms, and cookie recipes from a chastened Hill.
But how important is the Likeability Factor when it comes to following a leader? After all, Jeremy Corbyn doesn't appear to be the apogee of affability, yet won the top job in the British Labour Party by a landslide. And what to make of the pronouncement by the Dalai Lama that while his successor as spiritual leader could well be a woman, "that female must be attractive, otherwise not much use". Yet German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been an extraordinarily successful leader whose popularity isn't due to her personal charm but to her 'Swabian housewife' zeal for frugality.
With a general election looming here in the next few weeks/months when the various party leaders will come under intense scrutiny, they will all begin chanting the mantra, "but it's not a popularity contest".
But in truth, that's just what it is to a large extent. Personalities as well as policies are put to the sword, and the stakes are raised during an election when party leaders hit the campaign trail with the intention of shaking as many hands as humanly possible, and personality-friendly media opportunities are seized upon.
Olivia O'Leary, broadcaster, journalist and longtime gimlet-eyed observer of Irish politics, highlighted the importance of emphasising the likeability of the candidates. "Look at the extent to which handlers want to put their leaders on soft programmes, the chat show circuit; it is absolutely part of the process of softening the image and creating a sort of man-next-door/woman-next door relationship with the viewers. They can talk about what they do in their spare time, and therefore make the point, 'I'm not talking down to you, I'm not too clever for you'. They do this with Enda [Kenny], and don't want to put him in front of any of the radio rottweilers," she said.
There are of course the Marmite leaders - loved and loathed in equal measure.
Charles Haughey was one - an always controversial figure who was both deplored and adored with vehemence; Britain's Margaret Thatcher was another - in a rare moment of self-deprecating humour, she once observed: "If, one morning, I walked over the River Thames, the headline that afternoon would read, 'Prime Minister Can't Swim'."
It could be argued that Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams is in the Marmite category, but in reality it applies to the party as a whole - people generally either really like or seriously dislike Sinn Féin's ideologies and policies, with little equivocation.
Then there was Bertie Ahern, whose Likeability Factor was so high that it served to prolong his tenure at the top, simply because swathes of the electorate refused to believe that the plain-speaking Dub could be anything other than just muddled over his labyrinthine dig-outs and byzantine banking arrangements.
Olivia pointed to the then-Taoiseach's famous interview on RTE with Bryan Dobson when he was engulfed in tribunal controversies. "He understood that television loves drama, and crying has it all - vulnerability, ah the poor fella, and so on. He was the immensely likeable and friendly Dub in his anorak.
"His campaigns were a whirl of kissing women, shaking hands and not getting dragged into long conversations. But there was an authenticity there which people recognised," she said.
The current Taoiseach is also a famously energetic campaigner, which the broadcaster regards as one of his stronger points.
"I think with niceness, a certain authenticity has to be there as well, and Enda has that.
"He's a West of Ireland man, and in Ireland it matters very much that you're not ashamed of your background and your place. He's very likeable when you meet him face-to-face," reckoned Olivia.
Norah Casey, entrepreneur, Dragons' Den investor and CEO of Harmonia publishing company, has been giving some thought recently on the matter of leadership and likeability as it forms part of her latest TV venture, The Million Euro Startup.
"You can teach potential leaders some things such as adaptability and confidence. But you can never teach likeability. It's inherent, or it isn't," she said.
Norah believes that Leo Varadkar scores highly in likeability. But on the other hand Michael Noonan wouldn't be seen as likeable, yet people don't think anything less of his abilities, even though he comes across as a "grump".
Norah believes that women "struggle enormously" when it comes to balancing likeability and credibility - which they still have to do, given the predominance of men in boardrooms and in parliament.
"If you want to be taken seriously in corporate or political life, you have to adopt a bit of a male persona. Women often unfairly come across as unappealing, because immediately when they walk into a room full of men, they're constantly trying to avoid being stereotyped, and end up coming across as more austere than they really are," she said.
Norah explained: "In the US at the moment, they interview people for entrepreneurial jobs based on their personality before they look at their ideas.
"I learned in the Den to back the person, don't back the idea, so if the idea doesn't work, you have to have the personality traits to come with an alternative. And if you're a likeable person who can bring a team with you when times get tough, all the better. That's key in politics too."
So with an election hanging over politicians like an extra-sharp sword of Damocles, it's another decision to be made: leaderly or likeable? Are both possible, or is the latter even necessary? Olivia O'Leary had a view on that. "Think of politicians like Dessie O'Malley and Garret FitzGerald who were respected and generally liked.
"They bloody hated the stuff of having to stand and wave, partly because they wanted to talk about ideas rather than people and they didn't believe in pretending to be less intelligent than you were," she said.
"It's like the role women had to play for years that you'd frighten a fella off if you showed you had any sort of a brain at all. But people see through inauthenticity."
Perhaps when vying for the L-Factor, our leaders should heed the wise words of the esteemed writer Edmund Burke: "When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service.
"They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people."