roger mitchell
11 March 2019

Is charisma just a fraud?

roger mitchell
11 March 2019

I was never any good at English.

In fact my teacher told my parents, (albeit with a breath soaked in whisky), that I would not pass my English Higher.

I did, I even fluked a B, but he was actually correct. I had no feeling for the language, the style, the flow, the poetry.
At best, you could say that I liked the stories they made you read: Wuthering Heights, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm and, of course, Shakespeare.
I could not get anywhere near understanding the genius of how he, the Bard, used words; but those stories… man oh man! Ok, even if these were for me just sophisticated adult versions of Jennings and Enid Blyton yarns, I found them magnificent. Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth. Blockbuster scripts and plot-lines one and all.

Today I’d like to reflect specifically on another one: Julius Caesar; act III, scene II to be precise.

Like I say, I need to leave commentary on the amazing use of language, and rhetoric, to more qualified scholars; however, what struck me immediately about Mark Antony’s funeral speech, was how malleable the mob was shown to be. And what someone so minded, and so skilled, so charismatic, could do pretty consistently. That observation has never left me, and I found a plethora of examples regularly, in both the history books and the timeline of my own life. It’s everywhere. The history of mankind is full of folks “manipulating” the masses for their own agenda, however malevolent, or benevolent (sometimes).
I guess, if I’m generous, you’d say today’s version are called influencers. Not JFK and Churchill, but we do know standards have fallen, so we make do with Kendal Jenner.


Charisma isn’t about language.


It’s about an intangible energy people are drawn to. As kids, we could always see some of our peers being naturally a centre of attention. That’s confusing for a young person and difficult to pin it down and rationalise. You can’t describe it, but you know it when you see it.
It’s easier now as an older person. You see it, you see its effects, you know it maybe is not so real, you see the manipulation, and, before you know it, you are a cynic. Bravo.
So for this cynic, the history books will call 1999-2019 the Kool Aid generation. It will be seen as a seminal period of immense change in values and attitudes, across social interaction, work, and leisure (sport/music/film). It thrives on “narrative”, and likes to avoid the glare of troublesome questions on practicalities. Never mind the quality, feel the width……never mind the fundamentals, listen to the charismatic vision. Here are some names that have thrived on this: Musk, Macron, Trudeau, even Obama. And a lot of the VC industry. We are where we are, sadly.
I myself am a Scottish CA, proud of that heritage of dry numbers, which actually play a myriad of tunes, for those who can hear the music. And I’m a student of Ben Graham neoclassic value analysis, as a natural consequence. I like maths proofs.
But all that is out of fashion. Humbug. Can’t you see we can all go to Mars on one charge?


So am I concluding that charisma is just a fraud?


Can charm maliciously distort the reality of understanding? Are we in the realm of Plato’s Theory of Forms, where the abstract idea is stronger that the actual fact?
(My education never took me that far but, even a bluffer like me, can overhear his wife discuss the philosophy homework of his daughter, and make that work! Being a good knowledge “scraper” has its merits, although my version of Plato is the Pulp Fiction exchange about “one charming mother-fuckin’ pig”.

You tell me. It’s pretty close!

My own view about charm and charisma is that it is very, very real.
It is not Kool Aid, and it is the essential trait of a leader. All else is secondary.


I didn’t believe any of that until I joined the music business in 1994 and worked as No2 to the new CEO of Virgin Italy. Brought up from Rome, he had risen through the ranks of radio promotion, to be a serial hit maker record executive. He had no formal education or business training and first impressions weren’t in his favour either. He was called Riccardo Clary and I’d never experienced anything like it in my 10 years in the workplace to that point.


Charismaleading to energyleading to commitmentleading to beliefleading to results.


Almost overnight, a company and its executives in sleepwalking mode, became the undisputed Kingdom of Cool in Italian music. Oh, and artists also were in that spell.
That is charisma. Sure, I learned some stuff from him in that time, but you either have it or you don’t. Let’s be honest.
Here is another example Albachiara uses in its Leadership courses. Advertising agency FUSE celebrated its 10th anniversary without its founder, who passed away. They produced this video about a man with those same rare qualities.
It’s clear, no?

When you then move into the world of sport, as I did, inevitably you are brought together with big men of drive and ambition, off and on the field.
Not all had charisma. A lot are flat track bullies.
Some however very much did, and indeed this week brought us back to one of those stories. And prompted this reflection.
The tale of the two main protagonists in my sporting world around the turn of the millennium: Fergus McCann of Celtic, and Sir David Murray of Rangers.


This is the classic tortoise and hare story.


And it is recounted to show the impact of charisma, and mob reactions reminiscent,
in some way, of Mark Antony. 
It’s now 25 years to the day since McCann flew from Canada to save his beloved club, 8 minutes before the bank appointed administrators. A small, bespectacled Scot, who had left for Canada at a young age to eventually make good money in sports tourism. With hindsight, not a truer man of his word could you find; no more reliable of custodians; no more resilient and true to his values. He spent exactly the 5 years he had set himself to turnaround the club and quietly left out the backdoor before midnight. He achieved all and more, and laid the foundations of prudent planning, that has made the club utterly dominant and financially secure for the best part of the ensuing 20 years.


And yet…


Fergus McCann was never loved at his time at Celtic, and he was, tragically and disgracefully, booed in the moment of his crowning triumph, in preventing the bombastic rivals Rangers win a record breaking 10th consecutive title. A stadium jeered, as he stood in the middle, unfurling a flag.
He was sadly neither charismatic nor inspiring. Neither diplomatic nor silver tongued. Even this author found him hard work at the time.
He was nonetheless a hero, in the tortoise role, only recognized with the hindsight of the winning line. We should all be grateful for the justice of that.


David Murray, now be-knighted by the Crown, cut a different figure. Tall, handsome, and with the unique appeal of achieving greatness without legs, having lost them in a car accident. A fast car. He was a British adventurer who, in another era, would have been doing something outrageous in the colonies. A buccaneering pirate of a man, who had quickly cornered the steel stockholding industry, to build a fortune that he used to fashion a property empire, and buy Rangers Football Club. All with the unquestioning support of the very top management of the Bank of Scotland. Coincidentally, the same bank which had watched the clock tick down on Celtic, perhaps disappointed when the Canadian cavalry arrived?


“Unquestioning” being the key word there.
That’s what charisma can do. 


David Murray, different to Fergus, had that charisma. Even when you were being manoeuvred, it felt enjoyable and cosy. Meetings and lunches were fun, full of jokes and attention. He had the Scottish community of sport media and business dancing during his meals of succulent lamb. He boasted that, for every fiver Fergus spent, he’d spend a tenner. And, by Jove, he did. He ran up massive debt to maintain tribal dominance in Glasgow and Scotland. His bankers never ever blinked. They themselves would collapse after the finance crisis in 2008. Those building blocks in the Big Short. That was them.


Hubris and charisma is a very bad combination.


Rangers Football Club was liquidated in 2012. It didn’t go into receivership. It was liquidated, and been since passed around the hands of a collection of gangsters, convicted liars, and charlatans, like an IOU chit for a poker debt.
Sir David Murray left a pretty broken man to the vineyards of Bordeaux. An appropriate place for a hare, don’t you think?


Charisma is like The Force.
It can go either way.


It can seduce its victims into warm delusion, like a Brendan Rodgers, or it can energise knackers-yard football teams, like Nottingham Forrest. Man, how I miss Clough and The Damned United world!


But, whether in the creative industries like sport, music and advertising, or just stocking steel, it is the essence of leadership.


Try and recognize if you have it. Most don’t.


If you don’t, no matter, be like Fergus and focus on true value. That’s your game. He is the hero of this story.


If you do, use it very wisely, young Skywalker.