King Lear and charismatic leadership

Recently, various highly factionalized media worked their audience into a froth by reporting that New York’s “Shakespeare in the Park” had Julius Caesar represented as Trump. That these media were successful shows people are willing to get outraged on the basis of no or mis-information. Shakespeare’s Caesar is neither a villain nor a tyrant.

And it’s the wrong Shakespeare anyway for a Trump comparison. Shakespeare was deeply ambivalent about what we would now consider democratic discourse (look at how quickly Marc Antony turns the crowd, or Coriolanus’ inability to maintain popularity). But he wasn’t ambivalent about leaders who insist on hyperbolic displays of personal loyalty. They are the source of tragedy.

The truly Shakespearean moment recently was Trump’s cabinet meeting, which he seemed to think would gain him popularity with his base, since it was his entire cabinet expressing perfect loyalty to him. And anyone even a little familiar with Shakespeare immediately thought of the scene in King Lear when Lear demands professions of loyalty. Trump isn’t Caesar; he’s Lear.

Lear’s insistence on loyalty meant that he rejected the person who was speaking the truth to him, and the consequence was tragedy. It isn’t exactly news, at least among people familiar with the history of persuasion and leadership, that leaders who surround themselves with people who make the leader feel great (or who worship the leader) make bad decisions. Ian Kershaw’s elegant Fatal Choices makes the point vividly, showing how leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, or Hirohito skidded into increasingly bad decisions because they treated dissent as disloyalty.

In business schools, this kind of leadership is called “charismatic,” and it is often presented as an unequivocal good—something that is surely making Max Weber (who initially described it in 1916) turn in his grave. Weber identified three sources of power for leaders: tradition, legal, and charismatic, and Hannah Arendt (the scholar of totalitarianism) added a fourth: someone whose authority comes from having demonstrated context-specific knowledge. Weber argued that charismatic leadership is the most volatile.

In business schools, charismatic leadership is praised because it motivates followers to go above and beyond; followers who believe in the leader are less likely to resist. And, while that might seem like an unequivocal good, it’s only good if the leader is leading the institution in a good direction. If the direction is bad, then disaster just happens faster.

Charismatic leadership is a relationship that requires complete acquiescence and submission on the part of the followers. It assumes that there is a limited amount of power available (thus, the more power that others have, the less there is for the leader to have). And so the charismatic leader is threatened by others taking leadership roles, pointing out her errors, or having expertise to which she should submit. It is a relationship of pure hierarchy, simultaneously robust and fragile, because it can withstand an extraordinary amount of disconfirming evidence (that the leader is not actually all that good, does not have the requisite traits, is out of her depth, is making bad decisions) by simply rejecting them; it is fragile, however, insofar as the admission of a serious flaw on the part of the leader destroys the relationship entirely. A leader who relies on legitimacy isn’t weakened by disagreement (and might even be strengthened by it), but a charismatic leader is.

Hence, leaders who rely on legitimacy encourage disagreement and dissent because that leader’s authority is strengthened by the expertise, contributions, and criticism of others, but charismatic leaders insist on loyalty.

Charismatic leadership is praised in many areas because it leads to blind loyalty, and blind loyalty certainly does make an organization that has people working feverishly toward the leaders’ ends. But what if those ends aren’t good?

Whether charismatic leadership is the best model for business is more disputed than best sellers on leadership might lead one to believe. There is no dispute, however, that it’s a model of leadership profoundly at odds with a democratic society. It is deeply authoritarian, since the authority of the leader is the basis of decision-making, and dissent is disloyalty.

Lear demanded oaths of blind loyalty, and, as often happens under those circumstances, the person who was committed to the truth wouldn’t take such an oath. And that person was the hero.

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