How Jimmy Savile caused so many reputation crises

There is much to be written about the many reputations damaged by the revelations of Jimmy Savile’s abusive character and behaviour.

The BBC was slow to respond, wielded the wrong spokesperson (it was a serious enough allegation for the chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten, not director general George Entwhistle, to have been the first to speak), and took too long to announce an independent enquiry. The police repeatedly hid behind what they considered to be not enough evidence (should they not have co-ordinated the complaints and tried to gather more evidence?). Esther Rantzen demonstrated breathtaking naivety, both in her inaction when rumours emerged years ago and, when the story broke, in making excuses for that inaction (having set up Childline specifically to tackle child abuse, she of all people ought to have had the nouse to know that rumours of child abuse should be explored beyond the cursory). They and leaders at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Broadmoor Hospital, the Duncroft Approved School for Girls in Surrey, Leeds General Hospital, plus many individuals who asked Jimmy Savile about the rumours, all considered his dismissive answers enough. All of them fell victim to Jimmy  Savile’s manipulative persuasiveness but should have known better.

Which gets to the heart of how Jimmy Savile got away with what now appears to be 60 years of child abuse. He had charisma.

It is irrelevant whether that charisma was due to his extremely unusual character, extraordinary flamboyance, exaggerated confidence, limitless high energy or remarkable knack for raising funds for causes that pulled at others’ heart strings. All that matters is that he had it. And that no-one in authority knew how to manage it.

Research shows that when people are in the presence of someone with charisma, their brain deactivates the area of the brain that allows us to be sceptical. We suspend disbelief, become more open to persuasion, are more easily led, fail to challenge. Charisma can be used positively, of course – Nelson Mandela, for example. It is dangerous when it is used negatively – leaders of cults are usually powerfully charismatic. And so was Jimmy Savile. He certainly did fix it – duping those who should not be dupable, so he could continue abusing, decade after decade.

Business leaders need to understand charisma and the compelling power that charismatic people have – and take steps to ensure that people with charisma use it appropriately. They need not only to spot people with charisma but also to train them to use their charisma benevolently. And they need to train others to be aware of the effects of charisma on them, and on others, so no-one falls inappropriately under someone’s spell, causing a reputation crisis.

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