Unkempt leaders

Unkempt leaders

Can a political message change the course of a war in this era of social media and the supremacy of optics? With his new style of political messaging from the war zone – dressed in khaki, unshaven, visibly exhausted and with a voice trembling with anxiety – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has certainly left no one unmoved or indifferent.

His message and his way of getting it across stands far apart from the tsunami-like invasion of sundry “influencers.” It is not without cost; it has intensity, clarity, determination and authenticity. Zelenskyy’s image is charged with emotion but also with reality. He is not just with the suffering people of Ukraine; he breathes among them. He’s in the trenches, in the hospitals, in the homes being bombed, in the field where it’s all happening. As he said in a post on Friday: “Doctors, rescuers, transport workers, diplomats, journalists… Everyone. We are all at war. We all contribute to our victory.”

If, however, Zelenskyy introduced a new style of communication and intervention in extreme conditions with indisputable success, what of his copycats? Are they people who are merely trying to ride the bandwagon, or have the events of the past couple of weeks moved the world into a new era? Are we entering a period where the image of leaders looking stress- and wrinkle-free denotes something rigid, unfeeling – unfriendly in fact – to the viewer?

In a recent series of candid shots that went viral recently, we caught a glimpse of French President Emmanuel Macron – usually among the most soigne of the European Union leaders – hunched down in front of his computer at the Elysee dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt, unshaven and unkempt. What was the message here? That these are dark and crucial times? That he’s hard at work? That he’s constantly online, communicating with other leaders? Was it all a gimmick, a marketing trick, a cosplay of the Ukraine war, as has been suggested in the more critical commentaries on the incident? And how would it have looked if Macron had appeared freshly pressed in that moment when the world is teetering on the edge of the precipice?

The Greek prime minister also caused something of a stir with his recent televised address announcing a series of measures to offset rising energy and commodity costs. Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who is literally stuck at home after testing positive for Covid, appeared on our screens in a grey polo shirt, also unshaven, and with a slight hoarseness to his voice.

Do such similarities kill the message or do they make it louder? Is there really a difference whether an image is real or fabricated? Will a paradigm shift affect each one of us and the world at large – in this order or the other?

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