Is Michael D Higgins the ultimate charismatic non-charismatic?

April 8, 2014

‘Michael D’ defies contemporary leadership stereotypes. A case could be made for saying that this man is the ultimate charismatic non-charismatic

The President of Ireland Michael D Higgins makes an historic state visit to England [April 8th, 2014]. The trip is redolent with symbolism, as was The Queen’s visit to Ireland three years ago.

According to popular theory, a leader in the public eye has to pass the celebrity test of physical attractiveness. Absence of media glamour is a bar to a successful political career. In the UK, Ed Milliband suffers from repeated media references to his lack of personal attractiveness predicating his non-electability as the country’s next Prime Minister. Dr Higgins has been lampooned for his unimpressive physical appearance and stature.

The Irish are different

The Irish appointed a different kind of leader as their President. The two previous incumbents were Mary Robinson followed by Mary McAleese. Lucky the land to have found such impressive heads of state.

Then there was ‘Michael D’

‘Michael D’ was appointed in what seemed another burst of creative contrarianism by the Irish electorate. At the time, I got the election seriously wrong. I noted that two charismatic candidates were spicing up the election campaign. Both dropped out of view and eventually did not run. Instead a veteran politician and scholarly academic was elected.

An important ingredient of charisma

The Irish voters listened to what Michael had to say, and voted him in. This week he showed why to an international audience. He is an impressive and empathic communicator. In advance of his State visit to England he was asked whether it was time to put aside the lingering scars in Ireland of a relationship of often bloody disputes. He replied in a moving and convincing way. No, he replied, he had no right to demand such a thing of his people although he hoped he could help movement forward toward a better future.

And that was the moment I understood a little more about his charisma.

Context

Much of this post will be understood differently from the perspectives of readers familiar with the historical and complex relationship between England and Ireland. [For example, the symbolism of the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011, and of this return visit] Some of the modern history is touched upon in the links to the post, which mainly focuses on the surprising nature of the charisma of the Irish President.


Symbolic Leadership and the Queen’s Visit to Ireland

May 18, 2011

The Queen’s visit to Ireland has been widely described as a historic moment of great symbolic significance. So what is symbolic leadership?

This month (May 2011) has already marked two events redolent in symbolism. The first was the celebrity royal wedding of William and Kate Wales. The second event will have more of a foothold on history.

The State Visit

The Daily Telegraph put it in these terms:

Yesterday when the Queen arrived in the Irish capital for the start of her historic tour, she laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance, which honours all those who died for Irish freedom in the early part of the 20th century … [Today] The Queen will make probably the most significant visit of her tour when she goes to Dublin’s Croke Park, the site of a British massacre of Irish civilians which turned public sympathy decisively against the Government.

The symbolic significance was not lost on those still claiming to be heir to the revolutionary struggle for a United Ireland. There were thwarted terrorist incidents in London and Dublin. Security in the Irish capital was so tight that the general public could hardly glimpse the visiting Royal.

Symbolic Leadership

Just what is Symbolic Leadership? The Danish Leadership theorist Ingo Winkler defined it as leadership which refers to, and is based on interpretation of meaning, which becomes tangible and therefore can be experienced in the form of symbols. The concept assumes that reality is a social construction, with leadership being a part of this reality.

Those Symbolic Acts

The State Visit has been thoroughly planned for its symbolic impact. So was that royal wedding. Those symbolic acts have a message to communicate to the widest of international audiences. The Queen’s visit has a further message for audiences in Northern Ireland, The Irish Republic, and the British mainland.

An Irish View

A Irish blogger captured one view from Dublin:

I watched the Royal Wedding last month; I enjoyed it immensely but I didn’t shed a single tear. I cried today as I watched The Queen stand in front of Áras an Uachtráin (Irish President’s official residence) and listen to a band play God Save the Queen followed by the Irish national anthem. A moment imbued with significance and symbolism; peace in our time in this often troubled island. [Note; the very blurry image above was shot from my television screen from RTE’s coverage of the Queen’s state visit to Ireland].

Ackowledgement

To Just Add Attitude for that ‘very blurry image’.

Update

I was struck by the Churchillian prose of the Queen’s speech. It was a brilliant piece of writing for a momentous moment. Worth studying by any student of leadership, along with the Martin Luther King classic.