The return to the larger than life leader

The return to the larger than life leader
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Humanity’s history is a struggle for freedom to choose who are our leaders, what the law shall govern, how we can worship, where we can travel, how we conduct ourselves, and with whom we associate. Despite our relentless pursuit of self-determination — the long march from the Magna Carta to the Constitution and Bill of Rights, through the Arab Spring and beyond — the appeal of the outsized, even super-sized, personality is irresistible.

Enter the larger than life leader.  

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Why are modern, sophisticated, educated nations yearning for a return to an archetype that was seemingly extinct, a remnant of bygone days? Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen of France, Alice Weidel and Alexander Gauland of Germany and, yes, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republican threatens to push for Rosenstein impeachment unless he testifies Judge suggests Trump’s tweet about Stormy Daniels was ‘hyperbole’ not defamation Rosenstein faces Trump showdown MORE of the United States, are just a few of today’s strident public figures who fit the mold of the 19th century tub-thumper. Why have such leaders emerged to capture the collective imagination and dominate the tone and content of civil exchange?  

 

Science provides some insight. Studies show that charismatic leaders are tailor-made to deal with crisis. Charismatic leaders have natural appeal, are quick to act and are supremely convinced they’re infallible.  

They exude confidence, vigor, potency, and restore a sense of security and pride through literal or figurative pageantry and spectacle. This calms troubled minds. People instinctively see this — more accurately, feel it — and during trying times, are drawn to larger than life characters like a moth to a flame.  

Make no mistake, we are in crisis. Technology has advanced at breakneck speed, spawning fake news, electronic soapboxes and multifarious social media on the one hand, and Orwellian big data that tread on privacy on the other. Fundamentalist belief systems — ISIS, al Qaeda and neo-Nazism — challenge foundational ethical norms and elemental safety needs. Social causes such as the LGBTQ movement, marijuana legalization, immigration, even sanctuary college campuses, have accelerated at dizzying pace, upending the comfort of steady progress and long-observed mores.  

Multinationalism is hard to grasp in the first place (is Apple really an American company when its manufacturing largely takes place, and its capital is largely held, overseas?), but assuredly surrenders control of national destiny to ill-defined powers. Globalism constitutes adopting a worldview that supersedes traditional, local and proven ways of seeing the realm. Can anyone say Brexit?

What this all means for the social fabric is anyone’s guess. But what’s certain is that all of this threatens long-practiced ways of life and deeply-rooted cultural values. The zeitgeist is not what it was expected to be, nor are the prospects of it changing anytime soon promising.  

Our moment in time surely can be described as a whitewater as well as watershed. These are uncertain times. People are scared. And to assuage our fears, neurological research shows that emotion trumps reason. The heart always rules the head.

Thus, we turn to the larger than life leader.  

Today’s realities may require more than mere intelligence, empirical analysis and a level head.  We need more than the effective bureaucratic technocrat. The steady-state establishment type just won’t do. This moment calls for a person of stentorious temperament, who scorns standard operating procedure, who sees those not aligned as cowardly, and calls them so. One who brazenly pronounces that which was forbidden to say, to the squealing satisfaction of frustrated followers. We need a leader of singular purpose who is uncompromising, unbending and unforgiving. Intuition must be more important that diplomacy, ideas more important than institutions, and ends more important than means.  

Throughout time, frightened or frustrated humans have become especially vulnerable to the allure of obstreperous principals. History has shown that such moments often brought egregious leaders who, nonetheless, possessed the rare skill to animate people in communal pursuit, but lacked a moral compass. Yet such times also can summon our very best and most gracious leaders, those who have the same animating power but wield it for the broader social good. The difference between the former and latter is referred to as maleficent versus vital leadership.   

It would be easy to explain the choice of today’s leaders as part of an evolutionary process that serves our indefatigable pursuit of self-determination. But today is not an evolutionary moment; it’s a revolutionary one. We’re at a moment where the leaders have to be as big — if not bigger — than the times. Fearless grandiosity is today’s befitting tonic. Whether or not our choices prove the right ones remains to be seen. Whether the maleficent or vital leader wins our hearts and imagination is indeterminate. But one thing is for certain: Welcome back to the larger than life leader.  

James R. Bailey is a professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University School of Business, and a fellow in the Centre for Management Development, London Business School. He is the author of five books and more than 50 academic articles, and regularly appears on TV and radio broadcasts.