Coalitions and Charismatic Leaders

May 12, 2010

David Cameron and Nick Clegg reduced the complexities of a General Election campaign to a beauty contest between two charismatic leaders. Did they neutralize one another’s impact on the electorate? Does the country now have the coalition it deserves?

Nearly a week after voting ended in deadlock, Prime Minister Brown announced his resignation [10th May 2010]. David Cameron was able to establish a coalition, the first in seven decades, between his conservative party and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats. BBC’s Nick Robinson called it the election which nobody won.

Twenty hours ago David Cameron returned home wondering perhaps whether his dream was over, whether, at the last, Gordon Brown would outmanoeuvre him again. Yet it is he who has now brought into being the partnership between two political parties which New Labour talked about but never delivered, he who has agreed to fixed-term parliaments and a referendum on voting reform, he who has made a man whose policies he attacked again and again in the prime ministerial debates his deputy prime minister and put four of his allies in the cabinet. It is an arrangement which will either collapse under the pressure of competing tensions between and within the two parties or it will shape politics for a generation to come. David Cameron took office on a cold dark night issuing a warning about hard and difficult decisions to come. He did so in a manner, however, that suggested he is determined to shape events and not to be shaped by them.

Limits of Charisma

The pivotal episode of the campaign is widely reported as being the three televised debates between the party leaders. It is also now widely held that Gordon Brown performed as was expected, capable in content but dire in delivery. Cameron was not as clear a winner as was anticipated. In the first debate Nick Clegg grabbed the headlines for outshining Cameron and Brown. Cameron, better prepared, also performed better (or at least not so badly) in the subsequent debates. Polls suggested a big swing to the Liberal Democrats.

The simple narrative goes like this. A new charismatic leader appeared and overcame the older charismatic leader. Weber described it as qualities which result in an individual as being considered ‘of divine origin or as exemplary, and on the basis of them, the individual concerned is treated as a “leader”.’ (quote from Bryman’s Charisma and Leadership).

The simple narrative would then result in the leader being swept to power. He wasn’t. The lead in the poll faded. It might be concluded that a simple charisma-based explanation does not work.

The Hung Parliament

The outcome was what Nick Robinson called the election which nobody won. So the next act of a drama unfolded. Here it became clear that the calculations were not particularly difficult, but getting a satisfactory resolution was. In the old political numbers game, the Conservatives fell short of the votes needed to run a government without relying on support of the other parties. This could be achieved if a coalition with the Liberal Democrats came about. The departing Government had done so badly, that even in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, support from other parties would be needed.

The situation called for some form of resolution through political means (for all its weaknesses, the political system is robust enough to exclude a non-democratic seizing of power by military or monarchist forces). The process involves negotiations, horse-trading, and various bits of political skulduggery, all conducted ‘in the greater interests of the people’. Charismatic leaders leave much of this to trusted lieutenants to reduce the problems of being seen as human beings who might otherwise be accused of duplicity, deviousness, or worse.

What would you have done?

A nice leadership development suggestion. It’s worth playing out as a ‘hypotheticals’ exercise. One team plays Gordon Brown and advisors; another David Cameron et al; a third Nick Clegg and cohorts. Other teams or individuals representing the Media. Make it as realistic as you like. Decide who should approach whom, and in what sequence.

From the evidence of the manifestos and the debates, the Liberal Democrats are closer to Labour in the immediate treatment of the economic crisis; The parties are broadly supported by a ‘progressive’ grouping of the electorate which is essentially anti-Conservative. On the other hand, the ‘numbers’ game suggest that Cameron needs Clegg to form a Government, so a Conservative/Liberal Democratic arrangement is more likely, if each side can find acceptable concessions.

We know now that in the world we live in, Clegg announced he would speak first with Cameron. Brown offered Clegg a cherished goal on electoral reform, and even offered his own future resignation to help the process. Delegates shuffled backwards and forwards with concessions. We also know that Clegg had secret talks with Brown. We also know that the outcome was formation of a coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Might there be other possibilities revealed in the hypotheticals game?

Charisma or Calculation?

Have we seen in this case example the limits of charisma? The eventual numbers of Liberal Democrat MPs were fewer than those in the last Government. Would they have fared any worse if Mr Clegg had not been appointed, and the respected but less-obviously charismatic figure of Vince Cable had found himself in charge of the party during the electoral debates? [I recognise this is still in ‘hypotheticals’ mode, and perhaps of primary value only as an exercise in testing assumptions].

In any event, the outcome encourages us to look into concepts such as distributed leadership, and maybe back to the old sociological war-horse Weber and his notions of charisma emerging in modern institutions ‘in times of great public excitement’.


Image, via wikipedia, is of The Coalition Ministry of 1854 as painted by Sir John Gilbert (1855). The Coalition of ‘Whigs and Peelites’ collapsed ahead of an equiry into incompetence in the conduct of the Crimea war.

Toyota, Duty and Destiny

February 21, 2010

The successive bad-news stories at the start of 2010 for Toyota illustrate the effect of cultural factors on leadership and organizational behaviours. An understanding of dynastic history will help assess future prospects for the company

In considering the prospects for Toyota, I found myself reflecting on the nature of dynastic rule. Japan itself is still an example of a dynasty-based culture. The Japanese Dynasty is believed to be the oldest continuing hereditary monarchy in the world, with a bloodline stretching back nearly three millennia (660 BC – present day). The Emperor (天皇) symbolises a unity of the state with the Japanese people, and is head of the Japanese Imperial Family, and also the highest authority of its Shinto religion.

It has more recently become accepted to use the term dynasty to refer to family-owned businesses, where we also find transmission of authority and control handed down from generation to generation. Metaphors can be useful for imaginative purposes, but can also be misleading. Nevertheless, it is perhaps worth reflecting on dynastic leadership, and its implications for Toyota.

The Dynastic Principle

Western thought about dynastic power has been greatly influenced by the German social theorist Max Weber. One of his many significant contributions was his work on the nature of ancient and modern social structures. He proposed that traditional societies maintained stability by the society’s acceptance of the legitimacy of their ruler, and the power this permitted in the interests of the State.

Weber went on to suggest that overthrow of a society’s structure and traditions came about through charismatic opposition to them. For Weber, newer religious forms (aligned to state power) often were accompanied by charismatic leaders. He further argued that new form of control suited to modern industrial societies functioned through the power backed up by the legal authority expressed through rules and regulations. His terminology of bureaucratic control is still in common use. That’s how business students used to be taught about Weber’s theories.

Dynasties ancient and modern

The connections between the foundation of sociological thought, and today’s structuring of global organizations, are also being studied by researchers into institutional forms. A promising new area of work is into varieties of capitalism (VoC). The potential significance of this research can hardly be over-emphasized. It offers insights regarding the competitiveness of industrial firms globally, as much as insights into the diverse attempts to ‘civilize capitalism’ (as one researcher puts it).

Toyota, Ford, and other modern dynasties

Toyota may be seen as a modern institutional form, retaining dynastic power internally. The company was founded by Kiichiro Toyoda in 1937 as a spinoff from his father’s company Toyota Industries, and today’s President is Akio Toyoda.

It would be a great over-simplification to assume that such a family-based structure inhibits change and adjustment. Nevertheless, its response to its recent manufacturing and strategy problems appears consistent with a tendency to avoid radical actions which appear as threats to core cultural values.

Generalisations can be dangerous. In America, the history of the mighty Ford motor empire also shows the dynastic principle at work. From the days of Henry Ford until recently, power resided with the founding family, with current Executive chairman William C Ford the fifth generation (by my counting) of the family on board. Interestingly, Ford also came near to ruin with a safety crisis associated with the Ford Pinto in the 1970s. Ford survived that crisis, but has arguably been relatively slow to deal with competitive pressures. In the UK, its acquisition of the much-loved (but eventually cash-strapped) Jaguar mark was reversed by its sale to Tata, another globalising dynasty.

Born or Made Leaders?

Associated with dynastic structure of institutions or cultures, is the question raised of the fitness to lead. Are descendents of a founding entrepreneur especially equipped to lead into the future ? The evidence is less than clear-cut. At very least, the all-powerful leader acting ‘to the manner born’ is vulnerable to events that threaten the continuity of any organisation. Hereditary rulers of States and leaders of organizations exercise power mediated through advisors. At times the advisors contribute to forces which bring about the demise of the figurehead, in the wider interests of the Institution.

Toyota into the future

Jim Taggart, who writes on leadership issues, points to the manufacturing issues facing Toyota. He also cites a press story criticising Toyota’s risk-management approach . To understand Toyota’s present crisis, wider factors also need to be taken into account. Toyota-bashing in the US, as pointed out, is taking place with regard for socio-economic and political vested interests. Students of leadership will find much to consider in this, and in the ‘born or made’ dilemma of leadership.

Breaking News: English Football isolated from Jose Mourinho

December 14, 2007


This was the week that Jose Mourinho was not appointed manager of the England football team. ITV ran an interesting and intelligent report on the special one. It concentrated on his charismatic leadership style as much as on his achievements.

The TV report was mostly confirmation of a much-told story. One or two of the anecdotes were new to me, and rather striking in their demonstration of a leadrship style that deserves study for its more general description of a charismatic in action.

To put the leadership aspects in context I will draw on the notions of charisma from the monumental studies of Max Weber, as interpreted as a contibution to new leadership research by Alan Bryman, and later by Rickards and Clark.

Weber in translation

Weber was not the first or last German scholar to write in a complex and unforgiving style. His name is frequently mentioned as the father of sociological thinking on charisma. It may be realistic to assume that his ideas might have lost something as they have become distilled into Anglo-American academic folk-lore.

As Bryman noted:

Weber’s writings [on charisma] are highly diffuse, sometimes contradictory, and often [lack] definitive exposition

Weber’s ideas imply that charismatic leadership is an ancient mode of social dominance. The charismatic leader wins power and authority through exceptional personal characteristics. He is indeed the special one, maybe the chosen one. At the extreme, cult leaders are ‘pure’ examples. Followers are also believers. The special one has powers of revelation. He displays symbolic evidence of his unique gifts. He is likely to have been also ‘blessed’ with hypnotising personal presence.

Jose as cult leader

The programme gave examples of Jose’s near mystic powers. Let’s not forget they were backed by meticulous prepararation. We know the mysterious powers of the ancient soothsayers derived from their acute observational powers, and even careful . This is an anticipation of scientific method, although with claims for a quite different epistemology.

One episode was impressively stage-managed. It took place at press conference before an important game in the European Champions League. The press were demanding something. (A sign from the special one?).

His response was startling, but in keeping with the wiles of the oracles of old. ‘You want me to name my team? I will do more than that. I will name their team.’ Which he did. With complete conviction. Live, to camera. He was to be proved completely correct.
[Students of leadership: discuss].

Playing chess with the media

In one interview he was asked if he played chess with the media. His reply indicates the care with which his performance is planned:

When I face the media … before or after the game, I feel it as part of the game. When I go to the press conference before the game, in my mind the game has already started. And when I go to the press conference after the game, the game has not finished yet.

Cult leaders and sacred texts

JM even has a secret document, which records his extended labours. A book of Jose, written by himself. It is said that no-one knows what’s in it. So secret is it that his words will go to the grave with him. Secret, and with the whiff of the supernatural associated with sacred texts which mere mortals are not permitted to see.

Paying penance

After one particularly epic performance by his team, he ordered the players to commit a highly symbolic act. They returned to the field acknowledging their legions of followers. The players removed their shirts. What or who was all that about? The religious symbolism persists. [Students of theology: discuss].

Righteous indignation

Another anecdote reveals the wrath of the special one if an acolyte falls short of expectations. He once publicly rebuked the Chelsea player Joe Cole for a lack of the dedication and work ethic expected of all acolytes. In a game shortly afterwards, Cole scored a magnificently-taken goal, JM gestured to him in agitated fashion from the touchline. When the player approached his manager, he discovered that he was not being acclaimed for the goal, but abused for his lack of commitment to defensive duties in the build-up to the move. The programme claimed that JM eventually succeeded in upping Cole’s contributions to the team ethic, where previous coaches had failed.

Trials and temptations

The program also examined the strained relationship between Mourinho and Roman Abramovitch, billionaire owner of Chelsea FC. The disputed territory appears to have been over the owner’s wish for success both in terms of results, and in terms of style of play. While Mourinho’s personality sparkled, his team failed to capture the imagination -say in the style of envied rivals Manchester United. Abramovitch had taken steps to intervene more directly, acquiring support staff and two expensive players that had not been part of Mourinho’s plans for the future of the club. Among the support staff was Abram Grant, personal friend of the owner, and who was widely accepted to have been installed as likely replacement for JM.

The programme featured a psychologist exploring the messages to be found at film of a press conference held shortly after the arrival of the two international stars Shevshenko and Ballack. His body language is distant. No eye contact left or right. The
The psychologist suggested a desire for ‘total control’ , and in this instance, partial loss of control.

A few weeks later the Special one was gone. ‘By mutual consent, and with great love’.

So much religious symbolism. In the programme, Mourinho ducked questions about his religion, but talked a lot about the importance of love. Like a true charismatic, he seems to have worked out his own ethical philosophy.


Following McClaren’s departure, Mourinho emerged as the strong favourite for England manager in the media and among most football supporters. BBC Radio 5 Live football correspondent Mike Ingham said:

In many ways he would have been perfect ..The job is about giving players an extra 10% and I think he would have done that ..Mourinho ticked all the boxes bar one – I’m not sure how much of a diplomat he would have been.

He might had added on behalf of a minority of fans and English wannabe managers, “… pity he’s not English”.

The Guardian also considered that Mourinho was the FA’s first choice, though Soho Square sources say he was never offered the job and they clearly remained uncertain of his motives. The FA’s caution was borne out when talks between Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, and the FA director of football, Sir Trevor Brooking, ended with the Portuguese ruling himself out.

Three weeks later, and a complex deal was sealed, and another of the world’s supercoaches, Fabio Capello, was appointed England manager. The special one had just faded from the scene.


Image is:…/38/isolation.jpg
with echoes in the post of the famous headline:
Fog over channel, Continent isolated

[To be continued …]