Charisma is codswallop and we should quit worshipping it now

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

What is charisma? Something we value and crave. Something that makes us attractive and worth following. A good thing, isn't it?

No, actually. I don't think so. I think charisma is overrated nonsense. Here's why.

What is charisma?

I'm reluctant to reach for dictionary definitions. But that's never stopped me before and, to be honest, it won't stop me now.

Here's what Oxford thinks.

Compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others.

Straight outta Cambridge:

A ​special ​power that some ​people have ​naturally that makes them ​able to ​influence other people and ​attract ​their ​attention and ​admiration.

And, the people's champion, the Free Dictionary:

A rare personal quality attributed to leaders who arouse fervent popular devotion and enthusiasm.

It already sounds a little creepy. A bit supernatural. A bit hocus-pocus. And I haven't even looked at the Urban Dictionary yet.

Anyway, let's plod on with a look at charismatic people.

Who has charisma?

Search 'charismatic person who attracts followers' and you get the Merriam-Webster entry for the Pied Piper.

That's a fictional character who marched the children of Hamelin into the abyss, simply because the town owed him money for the removal of rats.

Charisma isn't sounding any less weird. When a child-stealing stranger is the poster boy for an idea, it's fine to flick your scepticism switch to on.

But maybe the charisma movement has been unfairly saddled with this dodgy frontman. Who else, then, do we typically associate with charisma?

1) Con men

Confidence men. Or confidence tricksters, to be accurate. Because that's what they do. They trick unsuspecting people into doing, or parting with, things for their own gain.

And when honest folk fall victim to these arrogant, audacious hustlers, what do we ask?

We ask, 'How on earth did you fall for it?'

He was just so charming. He had so much charisma.

2) Pick-up artists

From the same branch of the douchebag tree as our con men. Except these idiots aren't after your wallet, they're after your flesh.

That's right. Read up on The Game by Neil Strauss. It inspired a whole generation of creeps to cultivate charisma in order to get laid.

3) Cult leaders

Admittedly, there are other factors involved when you decide to join a cult. But the magnetic charisma of its leader is an obvious draw.

These people present themselves as visionaries, sent from the gods for the benefit of mankind.

Through sheer force of personality (and often with the help of drugs or violence), they persuade people it's true.

What links these charismatic types?

They're all fraudsters and fantasists. Phonies. They go to great lengths to appear caring, attentive, interested, knowledgeable.

But they're not. They just want us to think they are so we'll do or give them something they want.

Scratch the surface and you'll find nothing at all or, worse, something totally at odds with what you were sold.

Our third group, the charismatic leaders, deserves a closer look.

The trouble with charismatic leaders

In The Hitler Myth: Image and Reality in the Third Reich, historian Sir Ian Kershaw unpicks the importance of Adolf Hitler's 'charismatic leader' image to the Third Reich.

Laurence Rees does something similar in The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler.

They both use the work of German social theorist Max Weber to frame their thinking.

Here are a couple of interesting quotes from the two.

First, Kershaw:

The 'followers' of the leader are won over and their backing derived from personal loyalty, not abstract 'rules' or positions, sustained by great deeds, resounding successes, and notable achievements, which provide the repeated 'proof' of the leader's 'calling'.

And Rees:

Human beings are social animals. We want to belong. Life, otherwise, can be a very cold existence indeed. And only by understanding how those who seek power try to influence us, and how we often actively participate in our manipulation, can we finally understand the dangers we face if we leave rationality and scepticism aside and, instead, put our faith in a leader with charisma.

What the twentieth century's most infamous figure teaches us, among other terrible things, is that we should beware relationships propped up by charisma.

We have a tendency to follow and a need to feel connected – which makes us sitting ducks for confident, self-interested chancers.

Don't worship charisma...

Charisma, then, is a sham. Anybody can construct it if they try hard enough, read the right internet articles, and buy the right Neil Strauss books.

The only people who need to worship charisma are those who lack the celebrated qualities we typically associate with it.

The writer Umberto Eco is not one of those people:

History is rich with adventurous men, long on charisma, with a highly developed instinct for their own interests, who have pursued personal power - bypassing parliaments and constitutions, distributing favours to their minions, and conflating their own desires with the interests of the community.

Charisma is smoke and mirrors, disguising a lack of substance or talent. It's a magical explanation for 'success' when reason and logic seem to fall short.

...worship substance and meaning instead

When we use deception, trickery and personality to engage people, we create unhappy, unstable relationships doomed to fail.

And when we describe good, honest people as charismatic, we do them a huge disservice.

We should instead lead and follow from a position of substance, integrity, and shared beliefs – you know, stuff that means something.

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