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Colin Powell and the Meaning of Charisma

Nowadays, “charisma” is typically used to describe an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. But the late US Secretary of State Colin Powell, like Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan, lived up to the original meaning of the term.

LONDON – I have read the obituaries of General Colin Powell, who died this week, with considerable sadness. I got to know this great American soldier-statesman when he was the US secretary of state and I was the European commissioner for external affairs. He was a remarkable man – decent, moderate, and wise – whose career was eventually ended, and his legacy diminished, by his excessive loyalty to President George W. Bush.

Powell was charismatic in the true sense of the term. Nowadays, this description is too often used to indicate an ability to attract supporters or generate celebrity interest. Internet lists of those who are regarded as charismatic include characters as varied as Adolf Hitler, Bono, Donald Trump, George Clooney, and Rihanna. But the ancient Greeks and Saint Paul used “charisma” to describe values-based leadership infused with a charm capable of inspiring devotion. The Greeks believed that this quality was a gift of grace, while Christian theology regarded it as a power given by the Holy Spirit.

Thinking about the people I have met who best exemplified this quality, I am struck by a fact that owes nothing to political correctness and everything to my immediate and sustained reaction. The three most charismatic public figures I have known – Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Powell – were black. This may well have been, in part, a consequence of their experience in coping with political and diplomatic worlds that were dominated by white establishments.

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