Heroism and Charisma are intertwined. So much so that Max Weber, the famous sociologist, maintained that ‘personal heroism’ was one of the most important indicators of ‘genuine charisma’. It is, therefore, no accident that when national heroes take to politics they claim leadership, which to a large extent is because of their ‘heroic’ past – history is full of such examples. The irony is that in most cases, at first sight, such heroes from their personal pursuits come across as being the most unlikely leaders of a sophisticated or a complex state. Incapable of normal human friendships or relationships, unable to debate intellectually, often filled with hatred and prejudice, bereft with any real capacity to love, and lonely, yet they end up playing the most important part in carving events either by unnaturally revolutionising societies or by taking them towards destruction, both internal and external.

Laurence Rees puts it in his book, where he met and interviewed a lot of people who blindly followed charismatic leaders that ended up being a cause of destruction in the world. They reasoned that even if they found the figure (leader) to be strange, he at that point in time was very persuasive. Some of the usual and rather myriad factors identified by them included: their own inner fears; a sense of attraction; hope; however, the most common factor came out to be the sense of attraction they felt to the person, something ascribed as ‘charisma’. But then what exactly is ‘charisma’? The word has Greek roots meaning a grace of favour divinely bestowed, but charisma, as we use the term today, is not a ‘divine’ gift but ‘value neutral’ – nasty people can possess it just as much as nice ones. The original meaning also implies that charisma is an absolute quality that exists – or does not exist – in a particular individual.

Our modern understanding of the concept of ‘charisma’ begins with the work of Max Weber, who famously wrote about ‘charismatic leadership’ at the turn of the last century. Even though he was writing long before the events of the World War II, his work is still full of relevance for anyone interested in the study of leaders who get elected on the basis of their personal charisma cum heroism. Crucially, what Weber did was to examine ‘charismatic leadership’ as a particular type of rule – rather than a personal quality that a pop star can possess as much as a politician. For Weber, the ‘charismatic’ leader possesses a strong ‘missionary’ element and is almost a quasi-religious figure. Followers of such a leader are looking for more than just lower taxes or better healthcare, but seek broader, almost spiritual, goals of redemption and salvation. The charismatic leader cannot exist easily within normal bureaucratic structures and is driven forward by a sense of personal destiny, albeit drawing his strength from the power that emanates might.

However, what tests or rather undermines this charisma is when the sheer will of any leader to achieve extraordinary feats is mixed with over-confidence. As Professor Christopher Browning puts it, charismatic leaders with a sense of delusionary over-confidence feel a certain intoxication in making history. The leader and the followers get high on the notion that they are going beyond what anybody else has done before, that they are going to make history in an exhilarating way that has no precedent. What you find in this strange mixture of people following this charismatic, obsessed leader - some even with great technocratic abilities and expertise in planning and economy – that they carry utopian visions, and these utopian visions are very intoxicating. And it is this combination of utopian intoxication with technocratic expertise and over-confidence that blends in a way that it can sometimes produce extraordinary destructiveness. Once this happens and the results begin to falter, the dilemma that emerges is that while all the elements that had enabled that person to become a charismatic leader still exist within him, the people’s perception of the once charismatic leader stands changed. Since charisma is only created in an interaction between an individual and a receptive audience, repeated failure and broken promises end up destroying that very core appeal that made the leader charismatic in the first place.

Whilst the above excerpts are from the writings of Laurence Rees and John Toland on Adolf Hitler, they are still quite relevant today. The desire to be led by a strong personality in a crisis, the craving for our existence to have some kind of purpose, the urge to simply dismantle the past structures regardless of merit, the quasi-worship of ‘heroes’ and ‘celebrities’, the longing for salvation and redemption: none of this has changed in the world since the death of Hitler in April 1945. And with a new wave of self-righteousness and populism gripping the world today and also here at home, it has become all the more important for writers and intellectuals to work like never before to ensure that charisma and over-confidence are not allowed to mix in a way that causes nothing but pain!