charisma and leadership

It is not every day that the eye falls upon a book on leadership where the case studies, so charming in their sycophancy, include the likes of Mao Tse-Tung, Tito, Ceausescu, Chou En-Lai, Hodja (Albania), and Khrushchev.

But such was the case when I wandered through one of my favourite bookshops - in the departure area of the Phnom Penh airport. I've always thought the shop to be a great marketing strategy. Most visitors to the country have had their eyes and hearts filled with the worst things they will ever encounter - and so on their departure, why not give them the resources to enable their minds to catch-up with eye and heart over time? There is no shortage of choice.

On this visit I purchased two Aung San Suu Kyi books (you know you've arrived in Asia when you can spell 'Phnom Penh' and 'Aung San Suu Kyi'), one on Gandhi's leadership style ... and then my eyes saw this little red book. No ISBN number. Published by the local (state-owned?) newspaper - a sure sign of objectivity! It is simply called Charisma and Leadership. I doubt whether it will ever be carried by Book Depository or Amazon.

The book is written by Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the recently deceased king in Cambodia - who was first placed on the throne as far back as 1941. That is 71 years ago! His goal in the book is to provide 'a light tribute to his friends'. He wants to expose 'the human side of great leaders of the twentieth century' - a human side that otherwise 'remains hidden inside their marble statues and monuments' (xxii).

The most revealing paragraph comes in the Foreword, the only section which the King wrote himself. In it he lists the qualities which marked the lives of these leaders.
One could list eight traits of which they shared perhaps five - charisma being the one rare quality they all possessed. The others which suited the mold included loyalty to old friends, blind dedication to an ideal, a love for their people, a desire (which did not always materialize) to improve the well-being and economic prosperity of their citizens, a wish to serve as a father figure, the aim not to take back what they had once given to their people and to instill pride, forge a unique identity (often undefined) to their nation (xviii) ... They opposed being deified but couldn't refuse to allow their people to worship them (xx).
What do these eight traits look like when placed within a biblical, or Christian, framework? It is a good question to ask. Where would the continuities and discontinuities lie with Jesus, the leader? Or, even with someone like Aung San Suu Kyi, the subject of my next post.

I confess that these leaders lost their lustre for me once the stories begin to be told. Again and again, they are far more interested in the trappings and luxuries of leadership than the actual skill of leading and nation-building. The only recurring storylines have to do with living in palaces, consuming vast quantities of the arts (for example, ballet), abusing women, and soaking up the best in food and beauty and fashion. This is what leaders do, it would seem. His own wife was his 'secret weapon' as every second leader seems to be attracted to her charms and he used this for his advantage. For example, his wife 'kindled a flame' in Sukarno which was 'very inflammable, and thus indirectly contributed to my becoming an intimate friend of the hero of Indonesian independence' (30).

As Barbara Kellerman observed in Bad Leadership, there is a bias that identifies books on leadership - 'the prevailing view of leadership is relentlessly positive' (4). Well, here is a book which provides a little balance! As I said, the king had only recently died - in fact, the country was still in mourning, with crowds gathering outside the palace, adorned in lights, every night - and even video replaying some of the significant events (on that bright screen on the left)...

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