Research Program on Leadership and Persona Studies

This brief document presents the agenda, aim, and scope of the Research Program on Leadership and Persona Studies at ECPS. Authoritarianism and populism have become widely used terms, as populist strongmen like Trump, Duterte, Erdogan, and Modi have come to power. Through the use of populist rhetoric, authoritarian leadership – both nationally and internationally – has been on the ascent.

A defining feature of populism is its reliance on the “strongman” or “charismatic leader” who can mobilize the masses through the promise of radical reforms. Many strongmen begin as populists who argue that they alone, once armed with extraordinary powers, can solve the nation’s problems. Economic dislocation and demographic change have triggered and facilitated a demand for such strong leaders. In such a socio-political atmosphere, populist strongmen easily justify the repression of “enemies of the people” and make genuine democracy impossible.

The more extreme the strongman’s positions, the larger the number of “enemies” to whom he can point. These populist leaders insist that elites, experts, judges, and the media are to be distrusted; instead, people should trust in the intuition of the leader, as a living embodiment of the people and as the vox populi (voice of the people). Therefore, according to Cass Mudde, populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary of people.

By presenting themselves as “charismatic leaders,” many populists are able to establish a direct and effective connection with the masses, allowing them to manipulate the public’s psychology and to persuade and mobilize them through an energetic, emotional, and bold political style. Populist strongmen tend to rule on the basis of a “cult of the leader,” which portrays him as a masculine and potentially violent figure. Populist leaders also use simple and even vulgar language, a so-called Stammtisch (beer table) discourse. They relate to “the common man” by playing on sexist stereotypes and by using coarse language.

Populist right-wing politics especially pursue a strongman style of charismatic political leadership. Max Weber believed that charismatic leadership would thrive particularly in times of crisis, when people seek refuge in the specific characteristics of certain individuals, often political outsiders, rather than in the most common sources of authority. Political polarization also helps produce these strong leaders, and the strong leaders in turn secure their position by strengthening this polarization. Eventually, these leaders instrumentalize populist politics by transforming the political system into a more authoritarian one.

In this analytical framework, and in line with the general vision and mission of ECPS, the Research Program on Leadership and Persona Studies seeks to scrutinize similarities and differences among populist strongmen and charismatic leaders, including their discourses, narratives, strategies, and actions as they attempt to mobilize the masses. Our team integrates interdisciplinary approaches from sociology, psychology, history, international relations, and political science to delve into the defining characteristics of populist leaders and the people manipulated, persuaded, and mobilized by them.

The program encourages comparative methodologies with a small, medium, and large number of cases. This methodological concern provides explanatory, middle-range theoretical approaches. Beyond divulging characteristics specific to individual countries and regions, we intend to study the global patterns of populist strongmen and authoritarian leaders. The program includes but is not limited to the following topics.

Research Themes

I. Personality Studies

  • Leadership styles/personas of populist leaders
  • Charisma
  • Social psychology of the masses

II. Political Style

  • Discourse
  • Demagogy
  • Opportunism
  • Agitation
  • Emotionalization
  • Reductionism

III. Ideological Orientation

  • Communication Strategies
  • Treatment of the Masses
  • Anti-Establishment Approaches
  • Anti-Elitism
  • Religious/ethnic/cultural leanings

IV. Public Service Orientation

  • Organizational attributes
  • Civil Society and Social Movement
  • Leadership Succession
  • Transformational and Crisis Leadership

The research program, with the help of different communication channels, conferences, panel discussions, and symposiums, aims to disseminate and share program outcomes, products, and policy recommendations with governments, civil society organizations, and the larger public.