Mr. Turner’s charismatic charm

December 5, 2014

Fighting TemeraireBefore viewing Mr Turner, I had read and heard almost universally positive views of the film. What was it that produced such unconditional praise?

Partly, I suspect, because the film appeals through visceral rather than intellectual means. That is not to deny an exceptional level of intelligence behind its creation and delivery. My point is that we risk being dazzled and beguiled perhaps in ways similar to those produced by close encounters of a charismatic kind.

Charismatic lettuce and tomatoes

Charisma remains a fascinating concept. It has become over-used in popular culture. In his excellent book on the subject, John Potts gleefully reported the description of a charismatic lettuce, which presumably resulted in charismatic sandwiches. [I was reminded of the recent headlines in which Ed Miliband was confirmed as lacking in charisma because of the way he ate a bacon sandwich in public.]

The review of reviews, Rotten Tomatoes, confirms my point about the charismatic effect that Mr. Turner has had on its critics. Not so much rotten tomatoes, symbolizing artistic abuse, but veritable vegetable accolades.

Mr. Turner’s charisma

The film oozes charisma. there is a self-confidence in its visual impact. The demonstrations of sky- and sea- scapes were stunning and dog-whistle evocative. Reading the reviews is a humbling experience of dimensions of technical excellence which go unnoticed by amateur critics like myself.

The central performance by Timothy Spall as Turner was utterly compelling. This was the charisma of the physically near-grotesque yet ultimately endearing character. It also celebrated the notion of the disregard for convention of the creative genius. Does that sound like a cliche? If so, is it my cliche imposed on something subtler intentions?

Mike Leigh and distributed leadership

Over the years, Leigh has earned high regard for the integrity of his work, characterized by his unique improvisational style permitting artists to co-create characters. In leadership terms, this proves opportunities for distributed leadership.

The outcome is a set of performances mostly of high-quality, but inevitably individualistic. This has creative impact at the level of the individual and at the dyadic relationships with Spall’s Turner. What the approach gains in differentiated performances it loses in a lack of cohesion at the wider level of a narrative.

High on artistic values with a whiff of the didactic

The film manifests high artistic values. We are drawn to the scenic beauty and accompanying existential anguish which inspired Turner. We are invited to appreciate his innovative techniques he brought to his art.

For me, at times, the overall impact had rather too much of the earnest and didactic about its treatment of Turner’s artistic and moral integrity. This is rescued by a non-judgmental insistence on its ambiguities and contradictions.

Beyond Worthy

The result is an experience that is visually engaging and intellectually stimulating, this is a film beyond worthy, if not quite the masterpiece implied by critical comment. Which, come to think of it, is another way of interpreting Mr. Turner.

Image

The Fighting Temeraire [creative commons via Wikipedia]. One of many wondrous paintings by Turner weaved into the film.


Symbolic leadership and the significance of the discovery of the Sulawesi cave paintings

October 19, 2014

The discovery of the cave paintings in a remote region of Indonesia seems likely to change our understanding the origins of artistic creativity

According to a BBC report [October 8th, 2014]

Australian and Indonesian scientists have dated layers of stalactite-like growths that have formed over coloured outlines of human hands.

Early artists made them by carefully blowing paint around hands that were pressed tightly against the cave walls and ceilings. The oldest is at least 40,000 years old. There are also human figures, and pictures of wild hoofed animals that are found only on the island.

Art and the ability to think of abstract concepts is what distinguishes our species from other animals – capabilities that also led us to use fire, develop the wheel and come up with the other technologies that have made our kind so successful.

The dating of the art in Sulawesi will mean that ideas about when and where this pivotal moment in our evolution occurred will now have to be revised.

The co-creation of art and culture

Symbolic representation through art seems to have been around as long as the formation of early cultures. It is not unreasonable to develop the [‘social constructionist’] view that culture and symbolic communication co-evolved.

New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik picks up on a related theory, that creative art of the type found in cave paintings was the consequence of a feminization of early cultures: Ape-woman started creating art and the social skills of cooperation while Ape-man developed hunting and gathering skills with greater emphasis on competition and conflict. It occured to me that the artistic Ape-woman was herself engaging in a competitive survival tactic for winning kudos through her displays of creativity.]

Gopnik is quick to concede that any theory of the origins of art needs to come with as health warning.

The fallacy of the single cause of culture does not become less fallacious when it’s set farther back in time. Symbolic communication, even in its higher form as art, is always a tide ebbing and flowing, rather than an event that just arrives.

The capacity to communicate symbolically

These ideas suggest that the capacity to communicate in symbols is an ancient skill that contributed to the survival and success of our species.

It remains vital as there is a need for more visionary leadership to help us protect our world from the unintended consequences of our technological interventions.


Is Narcissism always a bad thing?

August 12, 2014

NarcissusNarcissism is often associated with ‘the dark side of leadership’. Recent studies offer a revised perspective

A review in The Economist [March 22nd, 2014] was entitled Narcissism: Know thy selfie. It reviewed two recent books on Narcissism: Mirror, Mirror: the uses and abuses of self-love, by Simon Blackburn, and The Americanization of Narcissism, by Elizabeth Lunbeck.

Lasch and the Culture of Narcissism

In examining these books it is worth going back to the psychodynamic treatment of Narcissism by Christopher Lasch. It is worth revisiting this classic study as the critic As Siegel summarized the work:

in “The Culture of Narcissism,” Lasch took what was still mainly a narrowly clinical term and used it to diagnose a pathology that seemed to have spread to all corners of American life. In Lasch’s definition (drawn from Freud), the narcissist, driven by repressed rage and self-hatred, escapes into a grandiose self-conception, using other people as instruments of gratification even while craving their love and approval. Lasch saw the echo of such qualities in “the fascination with fame and celebrity, the fear of competition, the inability to suspend disbelief, and the shallowness and transitory quality of personal relations.

The full-on connection between narcissism and many of the evils of modern society was always likely to attract a revisionary accounts such as those of Blackburn and Lubeck.

Narcissism and balance

Blackburn argues that a ‘healthy’ self-image is bounded at one pole by excessive self-regard, and at the other pole by lack of adequate self-image. This adds needed nuance to the Lasch position, as well as to the popular connection between narcissism and the dark side of charismatic leadership. His plea is for positioning the individual more carefully in their context. The prevailing view of egotistical leaders may have slipped too much into polarisation. Where he is closest to Lasch is in his cutting observations of advertising which seeks to bolster the self-image of the consumer (Blackburn takes the ‘because you are worth it’ message of L’Oreal as an example]

‘Good narcissism’

Lunbeck adds the point that the neo-Freudians have tended to focus on narcissism as bad, and that Lasch contributed this cultural belief. Freud, she argues, saw the development of self-regard as a form of ‘good narcissism’.

Narcissism as a dilemma

Both Blackburn and Lunbeck show us that narcissism may be more of a dilemma to be understood than a universal curse.

Suggestion to leadership tutors

Essay question: Is Narcissism a bad leadership characteristic? Discuss, drawing on the work of Simon Blackburn and Elizabeth Lunbeck


The Commonwealth Games illustrates the potency and symbolic nature of sport

August 2, 2014

The Commonwealth Games takes place in Glasgow as Scotland temporarily suspends campaigning for its referendum next month on independence from the United Kingdom

The Games reminded me of the Christmas Day truce in World War One. Not that I was there personally for Glasgow or WW1. According to the legend, on Christmas Day 1914, British and German troops downed arms, left their trenches and played a football match before resuming battle.

Don’t mention the war

In Glasgow during the Games, it was very much ‘don’t mention the war for independence’. If so, the truce was successful. This was perhaps because it was not clear to either the Yes or the No campaign whether political posturing would lose much-needed votes.

Overall, the Games have proceeded in an atmosphere of scarcely- controlled hysteria. Hysteria among spectators; among adrenalized athletes gasping out their semi-coherent replies at interviews minutes after completing events (“tell us what you are feeling as poster-girl now you have failed to win a medal in your favorite event”); and above all, hysteria among the assembled ranks of the broadcast media.

Gilded and giddy commentators

The BBC had more than its fair share of gilded and giddy commentators interviewing athletes and proud parents. These were performances honed by BBC experience of numerous interviews with Andy Murray and celebrity mum Judy before, during and after Wimbledon fortnight over the last few years.

The Gold standard

Great efforts were made to preserve or even enhance the value of the gold standard. The actual events were represented as all equivalently-compelling and equivalently worth watching. After all, they all offered changes to win Gold. The prospect of winning ‘yet another gold’ was the dominant marketing offer from the start of the Games. Each session was going to be special as there were so many gold medals to be won. Somehow the discourse permitted at the same time acknowledgement of the equivalence and specialness of gold and of gold-medal winners, and the lower status silver and bronze medals . (Another image: the satirical sketch of the British class system beginning “I look up to him because he is upper class and I am middle class”).

All events are equal but some are more equal than others

I enjoyed most of the actual athletic events, particularly those that lasted fewer than several hours of running, cycling, or wheel-chairing around the track. You could keep your percentage time watching athletes up by ‘using the red button’. Otherwise you were faced with a choice of multi-tasking or taking full-on the high-intensity but very cozy chats between the assorted teams of BBC commentators and guests.

Soon our revels will be over

I multi-tasked, with mobile, tablet, and library book at the ready at all times. In a few days the Games truce will be over and the referendum campaigning will begin again.


BBC Radio Four. Champion of cool rationality

May 8, 2014

While other media succumb to cheesiness, Radio Four remains a bastion of rationality

Yesterday, I combined business with pleasure, listening to Radio Four, driving to the metropolis of downtown Bramhall for early morning coffee, and thinking about a rewrite to a chapter in a textbook on leadership and rationality.

Radio Four remains a bastion for cool unemotional broadcasting. Even the most dreadful event is communicated with the minimum of fuss from Radio Four World.

If I want cheesiness…

If I want cheesiness, Radio Five is a button away. Radio Five World has cornered the market in the sort of personal hardship stories which are banned from Radio Four.

Back on Four, I hear the reassuringly rational tones of a national treasure who has been broadcasting for many a decade. She is in conversation with someone from the Empire. Sorry, I mean The Commonwealth.

Her guest is a creative artist whose work involves the indigenous culture of New Zealand. Talk turns to the expression of Maori culture through rugby, and its ferocious team performance of the Hakka before matches.

“And this Hakka. What’s it all about?”

“It’s a kind of war dance.”

“War dance!?” [Rationality alert.]

“The chanting and rhythmic stamping of feet bond the players into a team”

“Ah. That all seems very rational.” [ A relieved interviewer is audibly more relaxed.] The conversation was not drifting beyond the boundaries of the Dominant Rational Model.

Meanwhile, on Radio Five

I switch to Radio Five Live. An empathic interviewer is sharing the distress of a mother whose child is being bullied by Face-Book Trolls.


Roger Bannister and Guto Nyth Brân

April 27, 2014

The distinguished historian Mary Beard celebrated the breaking of the four minute mile barrier by Roger Bannister, sixty years ago

The race took place on the 6th May 1954. Writing how times have changed, Beard gently points to the social message in the mythologised race:

For the few months before the big event he practised at weekends too with Brasher and Chataway, and took advice from Brasher’s coach – often over baked beans on toast at a Lyons Corner House. As for his equipment, just the day before the race he was found sharpening his running spikes on a grindstone in the lab.

So-called “effortless superiority” is rarely as “effortless” as it pretends to be. It wasn’t all do-it-yourself preparation on the lab grindstone. [Bannister] himself explains that he had some super-light running shoes specially made (4oz rather than 6oz per shoe – enough, he reckoned, to make all the difference between coming in under four minutes and not).

But the most disconcerting side of the Iffley Road race is its glaring display of class division. Sport is well known to reflect, or to reinforce, social, cultural and political hierarchies. The mile event was part of a bigger competition between Oxford University and the national Amateur Athletics Association. Although we only ever see photographs of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway.

Tom Hulatt, from a local athletics club in Derbyshire finished third behind Chataway. Hulatt worked in the local colliery near Tibshelf, and had a rat-catching business on the side. His training was largely running the five miles to and from work. Afterwards, the Oxford students presumably went back to their colleges, the Bannister trio went celebrating and clubbing in London, Hulatt got his programme signed by Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and took the train back to Derbyshire. I doubt that, outside his home village, Hulatt who died in 1990, will be a big part in our commemoration of the mile-record of 1954. Rightly, perhaps, the moment will belong to Bannister.

Counter claims from North Korea …

A charming piece with a gentle social message. But I await the claims from North Korea for the achievements of their great champion and leader which have not been reported in the Western media.

…and from South Wales

Mention should also be made of the folk hero Guto Nyth Brân from my own little village in South Wales, where Guto’s feats have become famous in poetry and song. Every New Year’s eve, a race is run in his honour.

Guto was a man of the people who was said could run seven miles, from his farm in the hills to Pontypridd and back, before his mother’s kettle had boiled.

Difficult to translate into modern time-keeping and tea-making technologies and race distances of course.


Sherlock Holmes series on BBC TV illustrates charismatic infatuation

January 26, 2014

The recent Sherlock Holmes series on BBC Television was launched in a sustained and skillful blaze of publicity. Its impact suggests an explanation of charismatic influence

The advertising hype created a teaser over the apparent death of Sherlock at the end of the first series two years earlier. The character in the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories survived a fall. The viewers were now invited to explain the survival of the Sherlock as played by Benedict Cumberbatch

The Holmes Watson relationship

Two themes dominated the first of the three episodes. The first was How did Sherlock survive the fall from a high building? The second was the intense homoerotic nature of the Holmes Watson relationship.

The Marmite factor

The reaction of viewers to all episodes was intense. The reviews released a quite astonishing emotional outpouring of replies. Fans demonstrated the so called Marmite effect [you love it or loath it, with little cool or rational reactions displayed] Nearly a thousand comments appeared hours after the Guardian review.

For the first two episodes reviewers tended to be rather lukewarm towards the production, acknowledging outstanding elements of acting and plot but rather unsatisfactory coherence and more than a whiff of smug self-indulgence. The third was widely regarded as by far the most dramatic and compelling to watch.

The infatuation effect

As evidenced by the thousand comments [of the first two and more unsatisfactory episodes for the critics], a sizable proportion of fans were infatuated by the mega-star of the series, Holmes played by Benedict Cumberbatch. For this group, the overwhelming emotion was unconditional expressions of love, coupled with anger at those who expressed any signs of disappointment in the production.

Is this a clue to the nature of charismatic leadership?

Possibly. At least there is a suggestion of a line of research into followership and charisma. The vulnerability induced in followers by the charismatic leader could be studied through investigation of the concept of celebrity infatuation.


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