The Crucible of Charisma: The Wilderness Years
The stories of many charismatic leaders feature a period in the wilderness. In the case of Jesus, of course, the wilderness is literal, and provides both the archetype and metaphor used to describe the experience in others. Hitler, for example, spent much of the 1920s as an obscure, fringe political figure - indeed, he wrote Mein Kampf in prison; you don’t get much more marginalised than that. Churchill, meanwhile, spent much of the 1930s out of government and swimming against the prevailing political tide in his criticism of the appeasement policy.
(As an aside: it is a truism that charisma itself if morally neutral, and can be turned to positive or malign effect. A corollary of this is that a useful initial-plausibility test for any theory that purports to explain charisma is to see how well it generalises to both Hitler and Jesus.)
So, there are two dimensions to the wilderness phase that I have been trying to tease out which may be significant.
The first is its role in charismatic mythology. As I have written about before, people’s beliefs about a leader and about the phenomenon of charisma in general are central to whether or not they experience them as charismatic. So the mythology that accrues around such leaders both provides the general framework of belief to facilitate the experience and establishes the reputation of the individual. My question is: what role do the wilderness years play in this myth, and how vital are they to it?
The second dimension is the role they play in forming the leader as charismatic. Is it possible to emerge as a charismatic leader without having been through this phase of isolation with its attendant doubts and hardships?
It seems to me that there are three key elements to the charismatic mythology that are involved in the wilderness years. Each may be established by other elements in the story, but this episode brings them together in an emotionally efficient way:
- It is a very tangible demonstration of dedication to the cause. The period of isolation tests the leader, and when they emerge with their commitment intact, this signals both clarity and steadfastness of purpose to their followers. Their claims to be driven by a higher purpose become more credible if they cling to that purpose when they’re not getting very much encouragement.
- It contributes to the sense of their being ‘of the people’ by sharing the hardships of the people they appeal to. Even if they later acquire the trappings of privilege, this episode of humiliation comes to represent their common humanity. (John Man writes of this phase in Genghis Khan’s rise to power as ‘drinking the muddy waters’.)
- It establishes them as figures that are outside the established power structures. Weber theorises charismatic authority as fundamentally different from inherited or bureaucratic forms of power, and the exclusion from the mainstream sets up this ‘outsider’ status from which they can critique the established order.
So, these are all matters of reputation – of how the leader is framed for the consumption of their followers. Steve Jobs (to take another useful test case for theories of charisma) probably did not experience his years between 1985 and 1997 as a wilderness at the time (he seems to have been quite productive during them!), but they sometimes get cast in this light in the story of his return to Apple.
But I have a hunch that the wilderness years may also function, for the potential charismatic going through them, as a period of transformation, as the place where they become charismatic. And there are at least three elements to this:
- The separation from the mainstream provides the opportunity to refine the vision, in a kind of memetic speciation. Without the interchange with other prevailing ideas or values, without the social regulation of ongoing feedback, the conception of purpose can be defined more distinctly. With nobody to tell you you’re off your trolley, you get to pursue ideas to their conclusion.
- The absence of social validation engenders personal doubt, one response to which is to cling more firmly to your ideals. If you’re feeling friendless, you turn to your beliefs for meaning. Thus steadfastness isn’t just about the survival of your principles through a time of trial, but is actually a result of the hardship.
- The working-through of ideals entails a depth of engagement that means you emerge from them with much better skills for articulating them than you went in. Hitler wasn’t a great speaker in the early 1920s, but many years working tough audiences who saw him as a marginal crank made him much more effective. Part of the myth of charisma is the sense of extraordinary powers; whilst the mythology would attribute these to divine or supernatural origins, the wilderness years give you the chance to put in your 10,000 hours to accrue them through more earthly means
The underlying question I had when I started this post was whether it is possible to become charismatic without going through the wilderness. And my analysis suggests that it probably is: the things it does both for your personal development and your reputation could be achieved in other ways. But it is probably not a coincidence that it shows up in so many narratives of charisma, as it hot-houses so many key processes at once.