What sets successful politicians apart from the rest of their colleagues? In many ways the answer to this is the trait of being charismatic. When you look to all the most infamous leaders in history (Hitler, Churchill, Mandela), despite their vastly different ideologies, the common trait between them is their ability to inspire dedication and enthusiasm in their followers. This ability is what we refer to as charisma and is ultimately what wins elections. But how is charisma acquired? Is it something they’re born with or is it learnt?
“Rhetorical power is neither wholly bestowed, nor wholly acquired but cultivated” – Winston Churchill
Adolf Hitler, abundantly famous for his cult political following, is often assumed to have been born with natural charisma, however this is not the case. Early on in his political career Hitler developed techniques to help him engineer the aura of charisma for which he is often remembered. In person Hitler would often aim to intimidate the person he was talking to by staring unblinkingly at them throughout the interaction. This self-taught technique of intimidation combined with the unnaturally potent colour of his eyes produced the effect of semi-hypnotizing the person he was interacting with. Resultantly this worked to gain him respect and a hefty, loyal following. As it is to politicians today public perception was also important to Hitler. He adhered to a strict dress-code which he deemed to be acceptable, and deliberately made sure that he never showed any weaknesses in public. This even extended to him not wearing the glasses he needed to read if he was in the public eye. Based on this strict portrayal of Hitler as a man without fault the German public at the time were further enveloped into Hitler’s self-made aura of charisma.
Winston Churchill is arguably one the greatest leaders Britain has ever had and is renowned to have expressed abundant political talent and charisma. However, as his quote above would suggest to a certain extent these traits were manufactured and cultivated by Churchill’s sheer force of will. For example, the speeches he is so renowned for didn’t come easily to him. Prior to giving a speech Churchill would practice for hours on end – it is suggested that he practised for approximately 10-14 hours per speech! Similarly to this, Hitler’s speeches, although they appear to be spontaneous and often very emotionally driven, were also very well practised. He spent many of his young years in beer halls practising public speaking. In these years he learnt how many factors could affect how a speech was received, for example he found that speeches given early in the morning were less well received than those in the evening. Therefore because of this early exploration he planned his speeches very carefully to gain maximum reactions from his crowd.
Based on this quick survey of the practice of charisma it can be fairly well assumed that charisma is a hard-earned trait that takes years of dedication. It can be speculated that it requires a special kind of person to be willing to undertake the dedication of cultivating it and that is why charismatic leaders aren’t a common occurrence.
Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1990-048-29A / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AAdolf_Hitler-1933.jpg>
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