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The party's over

Charisma is a hard act to follow, in football as in politics

Who could possibly do better?, CC BY-NC-SA

Apart from a sensational winning goal, the main memory I have of the 1992 European Cup Final between Barcelona and Sampdoria is a moment in the second half when the camera panned to the man in the crowd who had already been announced as Sampdoria’s next manager: Sven-Goran Eriksson. The final was the last game in charge for the legendary Vujadin Boskov, a fiery coach who had created a team that played beautiful football and had won the Italian Championship for the first time in the club’s history the previous year.

After the commentator explained who Eriksson was (this was long before his sporting and non-sporting exploits made him a tabloid favourite), the co-commentator said something to the effect of: “Deep down, he’ll be hoping Sampdoria don’t win so that he can go into that dressing room in the summer and tell them they’ll do it with him.”

That comment has occurred to me often recently. Both as a Manchester United fan, who is getting used to life after Sir Alex Ferguson and as someone who does research on political parties. What defines charismatic leaders? How do you replace them? And what determines the success and failure of those who succeed them?

Charisma of course is a slippery concept which is much abused, both by the media and by academics. In politics, we tend to apply it to leaders who have strong personalities and perform well on television. In other words, we base it on how people present themselves. Yet, if we go back to the original definition of the term by the German sociologist Max Weber, we can see that it is not how leaders present, but how they are perceived, that determines whether we can speak of “charisma”. As Weber wrote: “What is alone important is how the individual is actually regarded by those subject to charismatic authority, by his followers.”

So, charisma is about the perceptions of the follower. In particular, as Weber and other scholars of charisma have discussed, we can say that a charismatic relationship is present between leader and follower when two key conditions are met: first, the followers believe the leader is on a “mission” and possesses unique powers; second, followers completely and unquestioningly accept the authority of the leader. These beliefs are usually expressed in highly emotional terms.

I have seen evidence of this type of relationship many times in interviews I have done over the years with representatives and members of political parties. Most notably, in the case of the Italian regionalist party, the Lega Nord (Northern League) which was founded and led for more than 20 years until 2012 by Umberto Bossi. Right through the party, from high-profile MPs in Rome down to ordinary grassroots members in small northern towns, I heard the same story.

“He basically changed my life,” one member told me when recalling the first time she heard Bossi speak in public. Almost all claimed that Bossi possessed a unique “sixth sense” which enabled him to predict events. As one put it: “he can see further than a normal person can”. That superior vision was why, as another member explained: “We have blind faith in him. Whatever he decides is fine with us.”

The party’s elected representatives were no different. One told me that Bossi was “a prophet, not just a politician”, while another simply commented: “He is the only leader who is loved … completely loved.” When asked to describe Bossi, a key figure in the parliamentary party said that he was “the one who gave us hope, who gave us the ideas and who still has that great capacity to read the future”.

This type of charismatic relationship obviously gives leaders enormous power within their parties. Even the most outrageous U-turns on policies or alliances with others can be justified thanks to the “all-seeing leader” who knows best. And who is unconditionally loved.

But what happens when a leader loses charisma? In mid-2012, Bossi and members of his family were accused of misappropriating party funds for their own ends. For a leader who had built his appeal on being different from the supposedly corrupt politicians of other Italian parties, this was a damning blow. Although he resigned almost immediately, the Lega swiftly dropped in the polls and saw its vote halved in the 2013 general election. Even more worryingly for its chances of survival, data provided to me by the party shows that it lost over two-thirds of its registered members in the eight months following the scandal. The more charismatic they come, the harder they fall.

Charismatic leadership is an extremely tough act to follow. The two leaders who have succeeded Bossi – Roberto Maroni and Matteo Salvini – have been pale imitations and have done nothing to halt the party’s decline. How can they compete with the memory of a leader who had special powers and was loved?

Watching the very uncharismatic David Moyes suffering week after week in the Manchester United dugout gives me some idea of how Lega Nord members must feel. We believed Ferguson had unique powers. We thought his “mind games” could unhinge other managers. Which they did. And we were convinced his teams could tap into great reserves of strength inspired by him in order to produce late winning goals. Which, of course, they did.

So, how can you replace the charismatic leader and achieve new victories? One solution might be, to return to the earlier observation about Sven-Goran Eriksson, for succession to occur after a defeat rather than a triumph. In United’s case, this would have meant replacing Ferguson at the end of the 2011-2012 season, when the team narrowly lost the title to its main local rivals, Manchester City. Another of course is to find a new charismatic leader. For political parties, that is obviously far more difficult than for football clubs since you can only select the new leader from within. For United, however, it was – so the papers say – a possibility. But instead of José Mourinho, the self-anointed, but undoubtedly charismatic “Special One”, we opted for Ferguson’s own preference: Moyes, the so-called “Chosen One”. An indication, perhaps, that in the end, just like Bossi, our old charismatic leader lost his sixth sense too.

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