The Quandary of the Abandoned Assistant: Part 2

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In my previous post on this subject, I was mulling over the phenomenon of reduced attendance at rehearsals taken by an assistant rather than front-line director. I had got as far as analysing it as a side-effect of the director’s function in creating charismatic encounters. It’s not that the assistants are not inspiring and compelling as people, it’s that it is the role itself of director that confers the power to galvanise.

We had got as far as starting to think about the routinization of charisma when the post got too long, so that’s where we’re starting today.

To recap the theory: Weber’s classic formulation of charismatic authority, upon which pretty much all sociological studies in this area build, saw it as an essentially volatile social relationship, born in situations of crisis, outside and indeed often in opposition to, more stable forms of authority (such as the traditional or bureaucratic). Later studies have observed that, whilst this inherent instability is often apparent in charismatic groups, some organisations manage to sustain themselves for considerable lengths of time.

Indeed, the fact of becoming something to be referred to as ‘organisations’ rather than merely transient assemblages of people tells us that they have become more stable and structured. Sometimes this may be achieved by transitioning into a more bureaucratic form of authority (moving along the Church-Sect spectrum back towards establishment). But other groups find ways of maintaining the emotional heat and zealous devotion that are both the hallmarks and the rewards of charismatic encounters within a self-sustaining structure.

This is the routinization of charisma, and I have hunch that those groups in which the director is frequently absent, leaving a team to run the choir in her absence may offer revealing case-studies as to how this operates. The director is just as much a focal-point for the emotional ties within the group here as the conductor who is normally present - possibly even more so - but the group is able to continue using that galvanising power as a source of motivation when they are absent.

I think there are two key factors needed to make this work:

  • A clear set of established rituals through which the group reaffirms the cause that binds them together. The point here is both that the choir’s methods and habits are known as routines so that they can be operated in the absence of the director, but that they are also imbued with significance, that they are experienced as embodying and making present the values the director represents.
  • A clear sense of anointed succession: the group needs to feel that those to whom the director has deputised partake in some way of their perceived (mythological) specialness by virtue of being handed the role. I suspect there are two components to this: what the director does to hand over their power, and what the assistant does to draw authority from the absent leader.

(As I have been writing this, I have been visited by the notion that the Catholic church uses this kind of anointing and deferral of power in a whole series of nested hierarchies. People don’t stop going to church every week because the Pope isn’t giving the sermon this week.)

I am sure that every director who leaves an assistant to run rehearsals in their absence is saying right now, ‘But of course I have every faith in my assistant, and everybody knows this, but attendance still drops when I’m away!’

But I think there may be a distinction between ‘everybody knows’ as an implicit endorsement, and the kind of ritualistic articulation of this faith that feeds the kind of magical thinking charismatic encounters feed off. Our cultural imaginaries are full of processes by which authority is conferred: coronations, degree ceremonies, bestowing knighthooods. Even the way outgoing barbershop quartet champions place the medals around the necks of new winners. There’s nothing in these acts that is actually magical, but we find them emotionally meaningful nonetheless.

I also suspect that those whose leaders are frequently absent both get more practice and have more scope to make repeated and explicit reference to the source of their authority when wielding it vicariously. They learn to use the shared experience of the special rehearsals when their main director is there as a trigger to bind the group together in devotion to the leader’s cause in their absence.

The occasionally-absent director and their assistant can learn from these processes of routinization to develop ways to generate deputised charismatic encounters. We need to recognise that it’s not just about the skills and dedication of the assistant (if it were, we wouldn’t be facing this question), it’s about the emotional charge of the occasion. And this involves finding ways to work with rather than against the irrational implicit assumptions people develop through immersion in our shared culture.

I suspect it will still be harder to routinize charisma in this way when the director’s absence is not, well, routine. But paying attention to the set-up can make a significant difference.

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