Charismatic is, like iconic, a term too glibly applied. I have often, lazily, used it when I’ve actually meant appealing, charming, stylish or inspirational. Impressive characteristics, but all capable of being manufactured, learned and honed.
Real charisma is something much more raw. I have only been in its presence once. In West Africa, twenty-five years ago. But with the recent passing of Ghana's Flt Lt Jerry John Rawlings the memory of that brief exposure to true charisma came back to me.
It hardly started well. It was during his second period in office as President. He was due to open a building in Accra that I'd been involved with. The Protocol Officer who briefed us in advance warned us to be prepared for anything:
At the last such ceremony at which he officiated, cutting the ribbon at a newly constructed flyover, the President had taken exception to its extensive lighting in a country in which many were without regular power.
Furious, he'd stormed off, threatening to send the army to do the job if every other lamp-post wasn't removed by the end of the day. 'You just never know what’s going to happen next with JJ', the Protocol Officer chuckled, clearly enjoying our trepidation.
On the day of our grand opening, Rawlings hardly seemed the man who had led two successful military coups and then won two elections. Frequently wiping sweat from his face. A tremor in his hands and his voice. He apologised, explaining his malaria was particularly bad that morning. Not the man of action with the notoriously short fuse that day, just a guy doing his job who clearly wanted nothing more than to get this over with and get back to bed.
Until the moment, children in the school across the road spotted him and let out a high-pitched cheer.It was as though all that electricity he'd raged about wasting on the flyover coursed through him and radiated out.
He beamed, raised a fist in acknowledgement and seemed to grow. Suddenly, he was everywhere, asking questions, interested in everything and everyone. And when he left, long after the scheduled departure time, it was as though a hole had been punched in the air.
That’s charisma. In its presence that day I felt excited but later, as we celebrated a successful ceremony, I felt deflated and unsettled. For to acknowledge and embrace charisma in another is to abdicate agency in oneself.
In Judeo-Christian tradition it is something divinely conferred. I am sure it is otherworldly, but God-given? Any list of world leaders generally considered charismatic would include some pretty ghastly people. Perhaps I should be glad I’ve only ever felt myself in its presence once. Charisma is something to be deeply wary of.