Wednesday 29 January 2020

'Charismatic' Varadkar beat 'cautious' Coveney - but what is charisma?

Leo Varadkar's who was elected Fine Gael leader is congratulated by Simon Coveney Pic: Mark Condren
Leo Varadkar's who was elected Fine Gael leader is congratulated by Simon Coveney Pic: Mark Condren
Patricia Casey

Patricia Casey

The election of the Fine Gael leader is now over and it's down to Leo Varadkar to get on with the job of being Taoiseach and leading his party. 'Charisma' was an oft- repeated word during the leadership contest - one was said by his supporters to possess it in abundance, while the other was portrayed as a 'charisma-free zone'.

The ultimate choice was between the person said to have magnetism by one section of those voting, while the grassroots seemed to opt for the more restrained of the two.

Charisma is a term that is difficult to define since one person's idea of charisma is another person's idea of arrogance.

It is both ineffable and alluring, and it is believed to have the capacity to influence opinions and decisions.

There are three aspects to charisma. The first is 'What is it?' The second is 'How does it work?' And the third is 'Does it deliver on the promises offered by its possessor?'

When we think of charisma, we think of attributes such as positivity, and the ability to communicate clearly and with optimism. We think of somebody with a presidential mien, demonstrating positive body language and an ability to articulate idea with confidence.

Friendliness, a smile and outward warmth are also perceived components. Its impact is believed to be most striking in the field of politics, religion and the arts.

People described as charismatic in recent decades have included Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Pope John Paul II and Martin Luther King, to name but a few.

Max Weber, the psychologist who studied it in most depth, defined it as "… a certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which s/he is 'set apart' from ordinary people and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.

"These as such are not accessible to the ordinary person, but are regarded as divine in origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them the individual concerned is treated as a leader".

Reading this definition, it is tempting to be profoundly envious of those possessing these indefinable, almost supernatural, personal qualities.

But behind the image of charisma, a more profound question needs to be answered - how does charisma work when the image is stripped away?

It's about more than just lighting up a room with one's presence or with the aura of confidence that is exuded. While appealing on the surface, this can ultimately exude narcissism.

The attributes that really make somebody charismatic are not the image but the interpersonal skills. Among the 'how it works' criteria are traits such as establishing eye contact, actively listening to the views of the individual or individuals you are in discussion with, feeling empathic to their concerns and not being interrupted by telephone calls or by text messaging.

The ability to show emotions non-verbally (also called emotional expressiveness) using facial expressions, body movement and voice tone are central aspects of this process and some researchers have manipulated these non-verbal expressions and then re-evaluated the impact on listeners.

The third question is whether charismatic people are better at getting the job done or if apparently non-charismatic people are also able to be successful.

A 2016 study from Ghent University assessed 600 business leaders on tests for charisma that included traits such boldness, imagination and mischievousness. Those who were subordinate to them then marked them on their leadership skills. The study's lead author, Dr Jasmine Vergauwe, subsequently published the results in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Her research found that those with high levels of charisma were just as bad at their job as those with too little. In this study, it was not the interpersonal skills that let the charismatic subjects down but their business acumen.

It seems that the warm image and the interpersonal skills may not be enough to surmount the requirements of the particular business in which they are supposedly giving leadership.

It is hardly surprising that in the areas of politics, religion and the arts, charisma excels, while in the world of banking, business, the civil service and so on, it counts for less, where hard-nosed and incisive decisions are required.

The office of Taoiseach will unfold under its new incumbent. It is an office that intertwines politics and business. The place of charisma in this intricate dynamic will be of great interest - to more than psephologists.

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