Character or ethos is by far the most important of the three modes, but also the most difficult to understand, let alone enact. I mean, what exactly is character? Is it ‘good character’ in a moral sense – she never cheats on their husband, or gets caught driving over the speed limit? Or do we mean by character that he is an authentic and consistent human being; he will be same in private as he is in public, warts and all?
To understand ethos fully we may need to refer to another key rhetorical concept, kairos. Kairos means the right moment. When the Roman poet Horace advised his readers to “seize the day” he meant kairos. So did Shakespeare’s Brutus when he said to Cassius (in Julius Caesar), “There’s a tide in the affairs of man which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; omitted, all the voyages of their life is bound in shallows and in miseries.”
A leader with ethos is one perceived to have the right attributes for leadership at that particular place, for that particular job, at that particular moment. Ethos is the capacity to grasp that moment, or as Brutus says, to “take the current when it serves”.
When Winston Churchill was made Prime Minister in 1941 it was a rather reluctant British nation that took him on. Churchill was brought back from the political wilderness because he understood more deeply than any other political leader the risks posed by the resurgent Germany. Churchill gained further ethos from his extraordinary wartime speeches that held his nation psychologically together. He became the trusted source of information, the national scourge and scold, the spine-stiffener.
Who would have expected then, that after World War Two Churchill was immediately voted out of office. Another demonstration of how ethos works: the British felt Churchill had the ethos to be a wartime leader, but not the ethos to be a peacetime reformer for a post-war Britain.
By contrast, even an unimpressive rhetorical style can aid ethos under the right circumstances. Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard was a stubbornly ordinary speaker, but his plain style aligned both to his genuine suburban conservatism and the blanket of quiet stability that Australians craved during that period.
Right now there seems to be a widespread dissatisfaction with traditional, professional, party-aligned politicians. In the United States, the success of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders suggests that the times call for outsiders and mavericks. In this Australian election campaign the Greens, independents and minor parties are doing particularly well in the polling.
So a traditional political leader who wants to succeed must find a way to connect with the spirit of our age, which I think is characterized by great economic and social uncertainty; resentment at the widening gap between the richest and the rest; a sense of the fragility of our world, both economically and environmentally; and a willingness by voters – whether out of despairing indifference or to send a pointed message to the old guard - to take risks with their vote.
Last year I wrote a glowing piece about Malcolm Turnbull’s ambitious and exciting pitch for Australian leadership. I felt that Turnbull had the ethos for these times, and so did many others: his poll ratings were astronomically high. Here was the perfect insider/outsider who could unite the best of old and new thinking for a new era of national progress.
But the Malcolm Turnbull who favored negative gearing reforms, gay marriage, smart business innovation, action on climate change, economic fairness, and the importance of the creative arts, has subsided into a sterile sloganeer for ‘jobs and growth’.
Today there are king tides along Australia’s east coast, and giant waves smashing into our beaches. I went to gaze at them this morning, marveling at the white plumes flying like horses manes over a cavalry of water. It must be scary for any leadership aspirant to take the flooding tide, but that’s the way to ethos and to fortune. We need leaders who are ready to catch the wave.