Tony Blair, the Chilcot Enquiry and the Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership

When former Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived to give evidence to the Chilcot enquiry [January 29th 2010] he was greeted by a crowd of several hundred protesters. The placards read “Bliar” and the chants were “Tony Blair: War Criminal”

The Chilcot Enquiry was established to enquire what lessons could be learned from the invasion of Iraq. Tony Blair, as Prime Minister at the time, was always assumed to be the key witness. He arrived early, by a back entrance, to avoid confrontation with demonstators.

Tony Blair is regarded as a modern example of a charismatic leader. The plotting and his eventual overthrow have echoes of the fate of another Charismatic figure, Margaret Thatcher, two decades earlier.

WE use the term to refer to today’s leaders in all walks of life. It was origianlly brilliantly analysed by Weber, as a pre-modern form of leadership through which radical shifts in institutions are achieved. eber consdiered that charisma was less effective than a more rational mode of leadership in modern industrial societies. He examined the persuasive powers of a leader, and the assumptions of followerss of special, supernatural or magical gifts which provide the leader with legitimacy. The influence process appeals to ethical and emotional needs, rather than self-interested and rational considerations.

In the textbook Dilemmas of Leadership, there is a chapter on The Magic of Charisma. It outlines an all- too-often ignored ‘dark side’ of charisma, in its early and more modern form (‘new charisma’) of transformational leadership. ‘New charisma … is associated with follower empowerment. Such a view has to explain the processes of leaders who show little concern for empowerment… [and] poses particular problems to the new leadership position of moral rectitude and ethical values.’

The Magic of The Charismatic Leader

The build-up to Mr Blair’s appearance at the Chilcot enquiry suggested that commentators still were in thrall to the magic of the charismatic personality. The presumption in the media was that Mr Blair would be able to weave his spell, and would escape relatively unscathed, however deeply the matter was explored.

The calculus of risk

The early questioning probed how Government strategy had arrived at a decision to enter into a war with Iraq. Tony Blair made it clear that there was one critical event which changed strategy, and why. This was the attack on the World Trade Center in New York on September 11th, (the so-called 9/11 attack). Mr Blair told the enquiry that at that time, the prevailing strategy of containment of the Iraq regime was already becoming weaker, but 9/11 changed the ‘calculus of risk’ of persisting with the strategy. Put another way, the calculus of risk may be interpreted as attempts to deal with dilemmas of leadership. Conditions are ambiguous, requiring trade-offs, maybe compromises. For example, the need to act swiftly against a perceived and serious threat will be hindered by concerns for reaching consensus among allies. Gaining support is weighed against belief in one’s own position. Considerations of the legality of desired actions may be considered to be preventing thos actions and risking moral obligations.

One vivid example of the leadership dilemmas given by Tony Blair was the problem of obtaining better information from key witnesses (regarding claims of Saddam’s secret weapons of mass destructions). Obtaining the information was highly likely to put the witnesses and their families in mortal danger.

Seeing the big picture

At one point in the proceedings, Tony Blair indicated that he had a consistent way of seeing ‘one big problem’ of The Middle East, The Israeli-Palestine conflict, and Saddam’s regime. Such holding fast to the big picture’ is useful, perhaps necessary, for a visionary (charismatic?) leader to be able to dismiss reasoned objections to aspects of the grand plan.

He concluded six hours of questioning in similar vein, appealing to the public to take the long view, and focus on what might have been achieved in 2020 rather than the details of how the war was prosecuted. He believed his actions were taken in good faith in the interests of a just war.

Outside the hall, the protesters continued their demonstration.

Lessons to be learned

The enquiry is seeking to establish what lessons could be learned from the invasion of Iraq. It is a question which can be modified for students of leadership. What lessons can be learned about the leadership style of Tony Blair and prevailing notions of charismatic leadership? Why had the anger of the protesters been heaped on the head of one man? Are there lessons for leaders in business in other walks of life?

4 Responses to Tony Blair, the Chilcot Enquiry and the Dilemmas of Charismatic Leadership

  1. Tudor says:

    The next day Tony Blair’s biographer John Rentoul appeared on BBC’s Five Live. He suggested another dilemma (his word). Namely, that Blair is perceived as such a consummate communicator, that listeners may be discounting or mistrusting the message.

  2. Cordell says:

    This dilemma of perception (as expressed by Rentoul) could in essence be the dilemma (or failing) of the charismatic leader (theory). This “special, supernatural or magical gift which provides the leader with legitimacy” can eventually fade or fail to be relevant in new situations. Thus the legitimacy of leadership ends. Once people “lose faith” in their charismatic leader, the leader loses the ability to lead. Their “special” powers are gone. They become just like everyone else, or worse, they go from leader to outcast, the pariah.

  3. Saiful Said says:

    Does this not examplify the issues and dilemma discusses in “Trust and the Dilemmas of rationality and freedom” in the “Dilemmas of Leadership” book. Specifically the “Character-based perspective”.

    I looks like Mr Blair has lost the trust of some of the public.

  4. ROY MADRON says:

    as long as he’s got Rupert’s trust, the public don’t matter

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