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9 Reasons Why Leaders Are So Big On Hugging

Modi has been honing this ‘skill’ for a long time!

04/07/2017 8:42 AM IST | Updated 05/07/2017 11:00 AM IST
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Hugging is quite common among family and friends. We all do it and no one thinks twice about it. However, when a leader hugs someone everyone takes note. By a leader I mean anyone in a position of influence—a head of state, a politician, a business person, a celebrity, a religious leader or a sportsperson. Most recently, Modi's bear hug with Donald Trump inspired endless op-eds and analyses.

It's always interesting to find out the reason why a leader hugs someone.

A hug by a leader could be an expression of an emotion, it could be a gesture of goodwill, it could be an unpremeditated reaction to a certain behaviour, it could be a tactic to connect with someone or it could be deliberate strategy to achieve certain objective.

Let's look at some of these reasons in greater depth.

1. To demonstrate bonhomie

When two leaders want to demonstrate bonhomie, a warm embrace is the easiest stratagem. It shows they have moved beyond a transactional relationship and have established a connect at a personal level. Such a hug is symbolic of a deep rapport and mural rapport.

Sometimes a leader hugs another much more successful person to shine in the latter's reflected glory.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi's hugs with former US President Barack Obama were the stuff of legend. Modi had been earlier denied a US visa, so it became particularly significant when the two leaders demonstrated their friendship. Another hug that made headlines was between Fidel Castro and Indira Gandhi in 1983, during a Non Alignment Movement (NAM) meeting.

2. To be more likeable

These warm embraces typically happen when a leader seeks to be liked and wants to appear as a part of a group. Their hug is for an objective. They want to be trusted. When they hug someone, it immediately establishes a close connection— of course a leader knows whom and when to hug so that it's not uncomfortable for anyone. We quite commonly see it during elections. When potential candidates go around hugging voters, children or seniors, often getting a photo op out of it too. They have broadly three objectives. They want to be liked by the voters. They want to appear as someone who is a part of the larger masses. They want to be trusted enough to win votes.

3.To show affection

This is the type of hug that a leader typically does when he meets someone much younger. The hug is to demonstrate affection. It is typically to someone who is much younger and the leader would like to show endearment and love. For example, when Narendra Modi was in Surat recently he stopped his car to hug a 4 year old girl named Nancy Gondaliya who came towards his SUV. Such gestures help humanise the leader.

4.To show caring

Sometimes leaders hug to show that they care for their team members. My friend Sanjay Rughani who is a CEO of a leading British bank in Tanzania hugs his team members regularly. This is to show that he is friendly and cares for them. This is does not mean that he is going to hold them less accountable for what they do. I once saw him giving a warm embrace to one of his direct reports in the morning. However, when it came to a business review meeting which got held after an hour, he was tough as ever with the same person about shrinking business volumes. In essence, the leader is acting like the head of a family—friendly but not a friend.

5. During festivities as a gesture of solidarity

There are certain festive occasions where a warm embrace is an integral part of celebration. It not only signifies brotherhood but also an opportunity to bury the hatchet. We've seen leaders of different persuasions hugging liberally during festivals such as Diwali and Eid, as well as during weddings and so on. For example, when Narendra Modi attended the marriage ceremony of Mulayam Singh Yadav's grand-nephew Tej Pratap Singh Yadav, he was seen embracing other leaders.

6.To recognise an accomplishment

Leaders sometimes give a hug when someone has accomplished something or has made a significant contribution. This hug signifies gratitude and thankfulness. For example, just before leaving office President Obama presented the highest US civilian award—the Presidential Medal of Freedom—to Vice-President Joe Biden. Obama called him "the finest Vice-President we have ever seen." When Obama hugged Biden in this event, it was not only for his contribution but also to thank him for that.

7. To demonstrate empathy

Hugging is a way for leaders to show they empathise with common people and their problems. One leader who seems to have tonnes of empathy is John Kasich who is the current governor of Ohio. As a Presidential candidate during the last US elections, Kasich seemed compelled to hug a young supporter who'd had a run of bad luck recently.

8. An indication of a new beginning

When two leaders bridge their differences they hug and make a new beginning. A warm embrace indicates that they have decided to leave their past behind and move on. For example, when Pope Francis visited Egypt in 2016, he hugged imam of al-Azhar Mosque, Ahmed Mohamed el-Tayeb for restoring relations between Roman Catholicism and Sunni Islam. Similarly when Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan wanted to keep their past differences aside and make a new beginning, they were seen hugging each other in Arpita Khan's wedding in 2014.

9. To bask in reflected glory

Sometimes a leader hugs another much more successful person to shine in the latter's reflected glory.

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