Boris Johnson’s progress as Mayor of London will answer questions about a politician’s honeymoon period, and the consequences of a leadership style dependent on personality and charisma
As we wondered in an earlier post, the voters of London have chosen Boris Johnson. It now seems that they were unwavering in their support from the start of the Campaign. The new regime (‘Beyond our Ken?’) appears to have come to power on more than a protest vote against Gordon Brown, or Ken Livingstone. Defectors from Ken were more heavily directed towards Boris than towards campaigners from other parties.
It is reasonable to conclude that Boris had something about him which contributed to his election. As a leader, he influenced people and ‘made a difference’. A further plausible assumption is that the difference had more to do with Boris as a personality, rather than his policies, which were on the sketchy side.
This principle could be seen at work during the recent local elections. One successful BNP candidate claimed to have been elected on a doorstep promise that if elected he would vote issue by issue on what is best for his constituents. Victory for a no-policy policy.
Whatever happens next to Boris may throw light on the nature of a political honeymoon, and what happens to a leader with a charismatic style as events creep up on the dear boy. This makes London’s future governance interesting outside the Great Wen, as well as to those living inside its boundaries.
The power of charismatic leadership is still widely acknowledged, although leadership scholars continue to predict its decline.
Even if we are moving into a post-charismatic era, political king-makers still seem to favour charismatic nominees. At times of crisis, the charismatic personality is granted preference over less colourful characters, lack of experience in the job on offer is overlooked. In his victory, Boris justified the decision to nominate him.
It’s not clear that Boris was chosen out of panic, and this makes his nomination a rather remarkable one. Perhaps the charismatic aspects detected in David Cameron have carried over in the decision to appoint Boris as the Conservative candidate for London.
Here’s my speculative suggestion of what we might look for as time goes by: The ‘events’ in London will be coupled to those on the national political scene. For example, the ‘Boris for Prime Minister’ story will resurface at the slightest evidence that David Cameron is failing to press home his advantage over Gordon Brown in opinion polls.
The Consequences of Charisma
Speculating even further, I suspect that stories about Boris will illustrate the consequences of a leadership style that exerts its influence more through charisma than through decision-taking that addresses the practicalities of improving the well-being of the wider group (here, the well-being of people living in London). Charisma can be a powerful asset when aligned to effective governance, but it cannot be a substitute for it in the long-run.
Furthermore, disillusionment with charisma operates at a more visceral and symbolic level than evaluations made on more rational calculations of a political policy and its architects. This suggests one of the vulerabilities of a charismatic style of leadership.
Boris and his Achilles Heel
It may overload the metaphoric content of the blog a bit, but I find myself going back to the interpretation of the symbolic world in the great human myths. One that has particular appeal is the supermyth of the leader’s journey.
In one form, Achilles has special powers of leadership which protect him in battle. But the protection leaves him with one vulnerability. The story has Achilles protected after being dangled in the Styx by ambitious mum. But the process missed out on complete immersion of the infant heel. Hence the one vulnerability of Achilles thereafter.
The Achilles heel of Charismatics is the catastrophic switch of opinion that occurs at a moment of insight. This is the personal moment of revealed truth, in which (mixing metaphors a bit more) the emperor is seen to have no clothes. Personal insight becomes the new received wisdom of the disillusioned. The charismatic spell is broken.
According to this story, Boris will enjoy a honeymoon period in which his charisma will protect him. But he remains at risk for that moment of destiny when his Achilles heel is exposed, and his charismatic protective armour vanishes.
So what, you may be thinking. Why should we believe in myths? Indeed. My point entirely.