Lead on, Macduff*: McLeadership and the real thing

A keynote essay for the Battle of Ideas 2008

Leadership is a buzzword that seems to be used more frequently just when the quality it describes grows elusive. It is more often invoked as something missing than admired where it exists, while what people mean by a need for leadership varies in different contexts. Indeed, defining it is perhaps one way leaders actually lead. And the lack of definition about leadership is arguably a defining problem of our own time, most particularly in politics.

The perception that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a weak leader, a ditherer, reflects a broader uncertainty in British society, the lack of a sense of purpose. Brown’s recurring and uninspiring efforts to celebrate ‘Britishness’ only highlight this problem. The partial recovery of Brown’s reputation when he acted more decisively than other national leaders in response to the banking crisis reflected a shift in priorities: suddenly leaders were required to be competent rather than inspiring. Given the crisis is far from over, however, and is arguably compounded by that broader lack of purpose, Brown is still likely to be judged and found wanting in terms of political vision.

Taken out of context, however, the idea of leadership can become anodyne and substanceless, a kind of one-size-fits-all ‘McLeadership’. This is common currency not just in politics, but in business, sport and even the arts, and is often discussed in very jarring ways – with frequent allusions to Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, and Machiavelli’sThe Prince, as if leadership can be reduced to cunning strategies passed down from history. Of course, all these fields require people with the ability to communicate a vision and mobilise people to bring it about. Too often, though, ‘leadership’ refers not to anything substantial, but instead to a set of techniques that can be taught, or alternatively to supposedly in-born character traits – even a personality type.

Worse, banging on about ‘leadership’, and making grandstanding gestures to demonstrate it, is often a substitute for thinking about what really needs to be done, and how. The word itself has a suspicious whiff of management-speak about it, suggesting pretentious business people who insist with lofty banality that they’d rather be respected than liked. And we are right to be suspicious when the need for ‘strong leadership’ is invoked in defence of unpopular actions or policies.

The nineteenth century French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin is supposed to have said, on seeing a crowd marching through Paris, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them’. This story was often cited by John F Kennedy among others, and is now established as a paradigm of bad leadership. We rightly disdain craven crowd-pleasers who simply tell us what they think we want to hear. But on the other hand, we have little respect, much less affection, for leaders who act without regard for what anyone else thinks or wants, ‘leading’ without taking anyone with them.

The case of Gordon Brown’s predecessor Tony Blair captures this ambivalence. For Blair and his supporters, his insistence on the need to invade Iraq, and his determined prosecution of the war, regardless of public opinion, was an example of strong leadership. As long as leadership is understood as a personality type involving a strong will, decisiveness and conviction, this is perfectly true. And for this reason, lots of people are very suspicious of the whole business of leadership. The spectre of authoritarianism is unavoidable: Hitler seemingly had all the character traits of a ‘strong leader’. Some argue the very concept of leadership is fundamentally undemocratic. Anarchists have always rejected the idea that we need political leaders, and the Greens have only recently succumbed to the idea, much to the chagrin of some supporters.

Both the fetishisation of strong leadership and the reaction against it stem from a one-sided focus on leaders as personalities, and neglect of the other side of the relationship. Leadership is a relationship, not merely a personal quality. Leading means convincing people to follow, to take part in something, whether it’s a small project or a grand cause. There are various ways of doing this, but genuine leadership involves winning people over so they are not merely following orders but participating as active subjects. In this sense, leadership is certainly not incompatible with democracy, but essential to it. Leaders are not a breed apart, but simply people with the imagination to see a possibility and the determination to make it happen. And ‘followers’ are not passive sheep or clone-like dupes, but simply those people who embrace the ideas of others and follow their lead. Most people probably find themselves in both positions at one time or another.

The key to this relationship is the idea itself, the vision communicated by leaders, whether it is their own or comes from someone else. It could be a business idea, an artistic production, or even a war of liberation. In any case, the nature of the ensuing relationship derives from that idea and how the leader plans to realise it – which preferably involves convincing people to make it their own – rather than resting in some abstract notion of ‘leadership’. It is surely the absence of big ideas in politics at the present time that has rendered leadership a rather sterile category. When politicians start talking about the need for leadership, rather than actually leading by setting out inspiring ideas, we know we are in trouble.

This is not to say leadership is an entirely intellectual business, that character and resolve are unimportant. Depending on the circumstances, they can be vital. Some leaders take responsibility for seeing through an existing set of ideas; others have to struggle to establish new ones. In either case, though, leaders need to have the courage of their convictions. This doesn’t mean leaders aren’t allowed to have doubts, but that they have to be willing to take risks. Leadership can mean walking purposefully and inspiring others to follow even when you’re perfectly aware you might be going in the wrong direction. Indeed, even if you are, firmness of resolve can be the difference between success and failure.

Nonetheless, just as people can reasonably differ about what is the right course of action, they can also differ on how to go about it, what is a reasonable risk to take, and so on. Julius Martov, a leader of the relatively conservative Menshevik faction during the Russian Revolution, was later described by Leon Trotsky as ‘the Hamlet of democratic socialism’, because of his particular reluctance to act decisively and lead the masses into radical action as the Bolsheviks did. Trotsky actually admired Martov, who was a highly intelligent political leader: the comparison was meant to indicate that like Shakespeare’s Danish prince, Martov’s greater virtues were rendered null by his fundamental flaw.

But whatever the man’s personal qualities, Menshevism was ultimately a politicalposition based on a particular analysis of the situation, and a particular set of ideas about how to change things. Martov’s character meant he was well placed to represent it, just as Lenin’s made him a seemingly natural leader of the Bolsheviks. No doubt there were others on both sides who ended up on the ‘wrong’ side for their own temperaments, since there are many more important factors in politics than personality. But history often seems to find the right man or woman for a particular role. In any case, the truly important distinction was not between the cautiousness of Martov and the decisiveness of Lenin, but between the politics of the Mensheviks and those of the Bolsheviks. And what counted in the end was not the personal qualities of the leaders, but the political convictions of those who followed them.

The personal qualities required of leaders depend very much on the circumstances, and need not in fact have much to do with moral fibre. Great leaders are not necessarily good people, and how we judge people as leaders is not necessarily the same as how we should judge leaders as people. Shakespeare also gave us perhaps the opposite archetype to Hamlet in Macbeth, who acted decisively all right, but did so out of moral weakness rather than virtuous resolve. But while in Shakespeare’s characterisation, Macbeth is a villain, in historical terms, he might be seen as merely unlucky. Another Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, also murdered a rival in order to take the throne, but is now remembered as a heroic leader who helped forge the Scottish nation by defeating an English invasion. Perhaps if he’d lost at Bannockburn, his demons would have come back to haunt him and he’d be remembered as a villain too. But history gave him a cause, and he led his army to victory.

The cause is the thing, and no ‘leader’ can meaningfully lead without one. Even Barack Obama, who has apparently inspired great numbers of young Americans to take an interest in politics and social change, has so far failed to give a real lead in terms of spelling out what change means. If today’s political elites seem unimpressive, it has to do with this lack of political vision more than weak character, and this is not the failing of these people as individuals, but rather a reflection of the times we live in. These circumstances call for a particular kind of leadership, involving conviction and single-mindedness, certainly, but also imagination and the courage to think afresh. History cannot be relied on to give us the answers. What other possibilities exist in politics or any other field of human endeavour? It is the role of new leaders to see them where others don’t.

*  Yes, I know.