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The Weakness of Strongmen: Do We Want Charisma or Competence?

Matthew Gwyther looks at the public’s contradictory ideas of leadership and how women are (on the whole) confounding them

Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz address a news conference, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Photo: Reuters/Alamy

The Weakness of StrongmenDo We Want Charisma or Competence?

Matthew Gwyther looks at the public’s contradictory ideas of leadership and how women are (on the whole) confounding them

One of the odder bits of news that emerged from Davos last month was research from Ipsos Mori. Their recent global survey revealed that “56% of people want strong leaders over their current government.” This yearning for strength is commonplace among those who feel a populist sense that the system hasn’t been giving them what they want, need or deserve. It’s down to no-nonsense strong men to sort things out. 

Strong men – and they are normally blokes – de-institutionalise politics and make things personal. They promise to drain the swamps, stand up for the downtrodden little guy, and make their country great again. It’s a worldwide phenomenon from Erdogan in Turkey, Bolsanaro in Brazil, Modi in India, and, of course, Putin in Russia. 

The strong leader is bold and sneers at those who take a more considered and analytical approach to life. Hence Mussolini’s line: ” It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” ( To which one might answer how many sheep get shot seven times, hung upside down from Milanese girders and then spat on by their fellow creatures?) Benito’s was classic strong-man talk. Rage, fight, struggle (jihad and Mein Kampf) Don’t take hostages or no for an answer. 

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By contrast, part of this myth of the strong leader is to deride individuals like Conservative leader Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer who are denounced for dull “managerialism.” They lack flair, and charisma, have no fire in their bellies and are happier with their nose in a spreadsheet than urging their citizens once more unto the breach crying “’God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’ The boldest Sunak gets is to remove his seatbelt in the back of the armoured Range Rover. 

Whatever you think about Sunak and Starmer, they both appear competent. And competence is a hugely undervalued quality in politics these days. Sunak saw what happened to the wild, uncontrolled ideas of his predecessor Liz Truss whose idea of a show of strength was a bizarre, confected outrage that two-thirds of the cheese we eat in the Uk came – pre-Brexit – from abroad. Truss had one fatal flaw though – “She was never very good at anything she did,” said one Tory who sat in cabinet with her. An excess of crude ambition over talent and ability. 

Strongmen are pernicious. The harm is not just to the people they bully and oppress or to the democratic political systems that they denude. Strongmen also chip away at global institutions, international norms and multilateral cooperation. Their nationalism makes them suspicious of free trade and cooperation. (Look at the extraordinary stance Trump took on Nato while slyly bigging up Putin) . They use adventurism and aggression in foreign policy to detract from things being a bit dicey at home —witness Putin’s murderous invasion of Ukraine.

There’s also a gender thing going on here. Contrast the women running Finland, Denmark (she’s the one who told Trump where to get off when he decided the US should buy Greenland) and Iceland with traditional strongmen like Bolsanaro and Berlusconi. Just look at the devastating wit with which Greta Thunberg put down Andrew Tate when boasting about the emissions of his supercar collection – “please do enlighten me. email me at” She knew the enduring power of a knob gag.  

Which leads us to the recent retirement of Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand. She’s had enough but stepped down in what seems the perfect opposite of a strong man exit – admitting human fallibility. “I’m leaving, because with such a privileged role comes responsibility – the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple,” she said.“I am human, politicians are human. We give all that we can for as long as we can. And then it’s time. And for me, it’s time….I hope I leave New Zealanders with a belief that you can be kind but strong, empathetic but decisive, optimistic but focused…that you can be your own kind of leader, one who knows when it’s time to go.”

There are many, including those on the left, who questioned her Covid response which was quite dictatorial in the way in which it denied individual freedoms – but that speech was quite something. 

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From politics to business. Here women do not do so well in the upper echelons of publicly quoted companies. The total of nine FTSE 100 female chief executives is just one up on last year. A woman is also chairman at 18 of the companies, with the number including Rolls-Royce’s Anita Frew and Prudential’s Baroness Vadera.

Women account for almost 40 per cent of directors on FTSE 100 boards and 39 per cent in the FTSE 250. But there’s a big caveat here. But while the number of female non-executive directors in the FTSE 100 rose by 15 per cent in the past year, those in executive positions increased by only 3 per cent to 36, at just 33 companies. It means only 17 per cent of boardroom executives at the UK’s biggest 100 listed companies are women.

In start-ups, women do better in the UK. Female business owners now account for a larger proportion of new company incorporations than ever before, the latest data from a government-commissioned report by Natwest chief executive Alison Rose shows. She found that the growth in women-led start-ups is outstripping men for the first time. Over 145,000 all-female-founded companies were created in 2021, a figure that is growing by more than a third each year. In total, over 20% of new firms are now led by women which is a record high.

We did, of course, have a strong female who led the UK during the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who never “turned.” However, Thatcher was the most divisive prime minister of modern times, admired and reviled in equal measure. She created wounds in our national fabric that still haven’t healed.  She rightly described herself as a “conviction politician”. A conviction is a fixed belief that brooks no argument. And she did not conciliate. For Margaret, the political world divided into “us” and “them”.

“Where there is error, may we bring truth,” she announced on her entry to 10 Downing Street in 1979, quoting Saint Francis of Assisi. “In victory, magnanimity,” Winston Churchill advised. Thatcher was brave and resolute, but she was not magnanimous. She won famous victories but showed no grace to the defeated. She delighted in rubbing their noses in it.  As a result, she failed to create harmony out of discord.

Thatcher dealt with healthy opposition within her camp the same as she dealt with opposition from rivals: She came out fighting.“I must say the adrenaline flows when they really come out fighting at me and I fight back,” she once said, “I stand there, and I say ‘Now come on Maggie, you are wholly on your own; no one can help you.’ And I love it.” 

What a way to live, never mind what a way to rule.

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