Leadership, to Americans, is a familiar concept. Go into any bookstore, and the number of tomes with the word in the title--Total Leadership, The Leadership Code, Leadership for Dummies (of course)--can make you think it has replaced dieting as a way to move merchandise. Listen to politicians' stump speeches, and it will be seconds before you hear them extol their unique leadership qualities.
But leadership, at least in the way that it's understood in the U.S., is not an idea--or even a word--that travels very well. It's remarkably hard to convey in French, while Germans routinely go through linguistic contortions to avoid reminding themselves that the natural translation of leader is Führer.
A century ago, Max Weber, the great German sociologist, famously divided sources of authority into three types: the traditional, the charismatic and the legal-bureaucratic. Americans like their leaders to be charismatic--a word derived from the Greek that means a person has a gift of grace. Political parties routinely look for presidential candidates with charisma (Barack Obama, naturally) and regret it when they don't find one (think Michael Dukakis).
Charismatic leaders, Weber argued, inspire devotion; they are change agents. But not every society wants or needs charismatic leaders, and some have reason to shun them. The Big Men of Africa and the caudillos of Latin America have often been charismatic, and their gift to their people was not grace but authoritarianism. So can you be a leader without charisma? Sure. Just follow these tips.
DON'T WORRY ABOUT YOUR LOOKS
It's what you do that counts
Since JFK, who has a lot to answer for when it comes to the overvaluation of charisma, Americans have liked their leaders to be handsome or heroic, preferably with a thatch of dark hair and a trim waistline. It doesn't always work (otherwise Mitt Romney would be in the White House) but it does mean that it's not surprising that two of the foreign leaders who have most made an impression in the U.S. are the young Tony Blair and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. (And Sarkozy--to add to the JFK meme--has the extra advantage of a fashion-plate wife.)
But good looks and 25¢ will get you a phone call. Australia has a higher proportion of naturally rugged men than any other country on Earth, but combined, its two most recent Prime Ministers, John Howard and Kevin Rudd, have the sex appeal of a church mouse. Who cares? Both have made tough calls--Howard to back the U.S. through thick and thin after 9/11, Rudd to apologize for the treatment of Australia's Aborigines--and they've been stewards of one of the world's longest-lasting economic booms.
Besides, a certain homely style can make your adversaries underestimate you. German Chancellor Angela Merkel may look like a typical hausfrau, but don't cross her. "She's ruthless," says a political insider in Berlin. "She doesn't just sideline her opponents; she destroys them."