Smiles, Charisma and Political Leadership

Partyforumseasia: Political charisma comes in many different forms. Dictators like Hitler, Stalin or Mao didn’t have to smile because they instilled fear and terror to everyone around them, and they continue to fascinate many people until today. According to Max Weber’s classical definition they are set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional qualities. But Weber also cautions that the recognition on the part of those subject to their authority is decisive for their power. This brutal type of charisma has nothing to do with the ancient Greek meaning of χάρισμα (khárisma) as “gift of grace”.

In democratic systems, even the flawed ones, leaders and candidates have to be attractive in more charming ways. One of the most important tools of anybody who tries to attract others is of course a smile. From sales personal and pick up artists to preachers and politicians all get advice from psychologists and strategy gurus. For all the basics of an attractive and bonding smile the French physician Duchenne has done the groundwork more than 150 years ago. For being convincing it must come from the limbic system, the emotional steering centre of the brain, and most people can detect the difference between a sincere “Duchenne smile” and an artificial looking “cheese smile” by the raised cheeks and crow’s feet around the eyes. They are correct at a rate of sixty per cent, but leave a chance of forty per cent for the fakers to fool their target group.

Many politicians are not sufficiently informed about the difference but could get useful coaching from the more sophisticated sales promotion industry. There is plenty of literature, training seminars and research on how to fake a genuine smile, constant smile exercise in front of your mirror being a must for success in sales. So far the grey zone how convincing “fake sincere smiles” can be is still unknown. And, also in terms of a scientific approach, the genetic roots of smiles are ambivalent enough. Chimpsmile
Apes bare their lower fangs as a warning that they may bite, and chimpanzees differentiate between a submissive “fear face” which resembles already a human smile and a “play face” with corners of the mouth and eyes drawn upwards. According to psychologists the human smile is serving the same purpose, showing that you are not threatening and asking to be accepted on a personal level. Signalling a fake smile is also the baring of the bottom teeth, among primates a clear sign of aggressive attitudes. And if you observe your political candidates, genuine smiles are late-coming, they don’t appear instantly on demand.
Dominant persons like president Putin and his foreign minister Lawrow or Margaret Thatcher and Charles Bronson don’t  smile because they don’t want to be seen as submissive in any way.

On this background the effects of smiling leaders are politically rather interesting. Once the big boss ventures a smile, the whole entourage smiles automatically as well. And even more intense, followers and admirers are so pleased to be close to their idol that their smiles come close to extacy.
TrumpMessianic expectations of voters and supporters can go into unbelievable dimensions, but are frequently matched by overblown self-confidence of politicians. And psychologists (Link) have found out that over-confident leaders are seen as strong, competent and charismatic and not as potentially failing because of their unrealistic self-image. Another study (Link) concludes “When managed well, the social status conferred by overconfidence has an aura just shy of magical, capable of keeping our attention diverted from measurable results. (…) Belief sells, whether it’s true or not. In the case of overconfidence, the belief in one’s ability—however out of proportion to reality—generates its own infectious energy. Self-deception is a potent means of convincing the world to see things your way.”
Overconfidence is often very close or overlapping with narcissism, one of the motivations for self-styled candidates. A study on “Narcissistic Personality and Politics: Smiling while Insulting” (Link) states that “Personality disorders are represented in politics to a larger degree than the general population” and concludes that politicians  “require excessive admiration. Just take a look at the rallies and gatherings they experience on a regular basis with people holding signs and calling their name. Politicians and actors are the only people who experience that kind of adulation. It certainly isn’t unique to see actors becoming politicians and politicians becoming actors. They have very similar personalities.”

Under the title “Humble leaders build high-performing companies” a recent (December 2014) study by Arizona State University (Link) the research team found for business leaders: “With top management working together, an empowering organizational climate emerges, prompting middle managers to become more engaged and committed and to perform better at their jobs, according to the model.” The study is also suggesting to study the influence of Confucianism on leadership in Asia. The article is too new to have influenced Singapore’s PAP, but it seems to describe its successful cooperation style in the top management.

Election results world wide seem to confirm the above findings in many ways, but, fortunately, in many places as well, rational and responsible leadership prevails nevertheless…

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