Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is the Director of Theos, the UK’s leading Religion and Society think tank. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times.

June 17, 2019

Why are we so obsessed with charisma – or the lack of it? The most consistent complaint against Theresa May – and there’s quite a list – has been her want of it. Never mind the competence question. She’s been described as “a charisma-free populist” and the “Maybot”; many are calling for her replacement to have more of the magic C factor. So as the current crop of leadership contenders trot like show ponies round the ring of members and stakeholders, each is being assessed for their possession of this mystical quality.

Charisma is one of those slippery concepts – we know it when we see it, or more accurately when we feel it. But should we trust it? Some argue, and research indicates, that it may be something to be wary of – as it hides a lack of substance, capability and character. Boris Johnson is widely acknowledged as charismatic, but for many it is in this flashy, shallow sense.

I think we should definitely seek charisma in our leaders, but an older, deeper conception of it. The word charisma comes from the Greek for the gift of grace or favour. Truly charismatic leaders give off a sense of having received something beyond themselves and an ability to communicate and share this across difference. Whether it’s grace, power or purpose, true charisma isn’t just an appealing individual with whom we’d like to have a beer.

The original moment of ‘charismatic leadership’ offers a good model. Last week churches were celebrating Pentecost. This festival commemorates one of the stranger events in the generally quite strange New Testament. Following Jesus’s death and resurrection, a small group of his friends meet in a house, bewildered and exhausted, and “receive the Holy spirit”. An indoor tornado appears and small fires break out on their heads. They are then able to start speaking in the myriad languages of the nations gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish festival of the harvest, and people start joining them. They receive a gift which propels them into leadership, with exponentially increasing numbers of followers.

Pentecost was the “ground zero” of the church. This divinely conferred ability to communicate across groups, to inspire, envision and incorporate people from every language, tribe and social class was part of the reason the early Christians were able to transform the face of the known world so rapidly. All Christians trace their lineage to it, but it is particularly associated with the wing of the church called Pentecostal or Charismatic, most of whom still “speak in tongues” and encourage powerful ecstatic experiences of the divine.

Whether you take this as a powerful story or gospel truth, it has something to teach us today about charisma. It isn’t about Hollywood gloss, or sex-appeal, or extraversion. It can’t be manufactured.

It’s first about communication, and the ability to connect with people not like yourself. Every person who showed up to see what all the kerfuffle was about was able to hear a message about God intervening in history in their mother tongue. They were spoken to in the language of their dreams and longings, not just the language of the empire or the elite. They felt known, seen, understood. Boris Johnson has this with some audiences who connect with him viscerally, but the opposite effect on many others.

But it can’t just be about one person. It’s noticeable that the whole group received the Holy Spirit and were able to communicate and connect in miraculous ways. Although there were famous apostles (John, Paul, George and Ringo) charismatic leadership in the early church was collective. Diverse audiences didn’t just hear a message, they were invited into a community, a story.

This model of leadership is the opposite of a narcissistic personality cult. There was a saviour involved, but it wasn’t any of the leaders, any single human individual. The big risk for the current crop of leadership contenders is attempting to invite people to follow them without offering an idea of what they can become part of.

Finally, true charisma is not just showy and surface – it also has content. The ‘charis’ of the apostles was indivisible from ‘kerygma’, proclamation. They had something to say, a vision for a new world and insight into the human destiny, and it wasn’t primarily about themselves.

Even the most authentic charisma won’t appeal to everyone. In one of the surprisingly common moments of dry humour in the bible, we are told that some in the crowd said “they have had too much wine”. Power, purpose, connection and inspirational leadership can easily set off our cynicism sensors, largely because false charisma so often disappoints.

But charisma will only go so far. Competence matters too. A few short chapters after the church’s charismatic revolution, the burgeoning institution faces its first crisis and has to rush to appoint (effectively) operations directors. Connection, vision and belonging are not alone enough – organisational skills and planning are also needed if the original promise is not just to cause more disappointment, more cynicism. Truly charismatic leaders build a team, think ahead, and seek to serve the people who follow them, not the other way around. When we see that kind of charisma, I’ll be ready to follow the leader.