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It’s Time to Abandon the Pursuit for Great Leaders

From Napoleon to Donald Trump, it has always been tempting to empower individuals who seem extraordinary. It has also always been a mistake.

Pigeons stand on a statue of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the storage of a foundry, on April 15, 2013 in Tirana. The bronze of the communist era statues is used to cast new artworks. AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU        (Photo credit should read )
Pigeons stand on a statue of late Soviet dictator Josef Stalin in the storage of a foundry, on April 15, 2013 in Tirana. The bronze of the communist era statues is used to cast new artworks. AFP PHOTO / GENT SHKULLAKU (Photo credit should read )

Remember that delightful period right after the Cold War, when globalization was the buzzword du jour, democracy was spreading like wildfire, and America’s political and economic system seemed like an attractive model? Academics who should have known better believed realism was headed for the dustbin of history, and lots of smart people thought tyrants, dictators, potentates, and other authoritarians were living on borrowed time. They believed the vox populi would grow ever louder, more and more countries would install representative institutions, adopt market economies, and protect human rights, and soon we’d be living happily ever after in a tranquil Kantian Garden of Eden.

Such notions seem rather quaint today, to say the least. Indeed one of the striking trends in contemporary world politics are the number of people who think that what we really need are Great Leaders—men and women who are unfettered by pesky domestic constraints. Instead of building effective institutions and strengthening liberal values, we see people rushing to back some Great Leader who will lead them out of darkness and toward a bright and glorious future. It’s probably not an accident that most of the candidates for that role seem to be men.

In China, for example, the dynamic and forceful Xi Jiping replaced by the cautious and uncharismatic Hu Jintao, and Xi has consolidated power to an extent not seen since Deng Xiaoping or even Mao Zedong. He shows no signs of stopping despite some recent missteps and China’s stumbling economy, and seems bent on establishing his own cult of personality. Similarly, Turkish President Recep Erdogan seems to think that only he knows what’s good for his fellow Turks, and continues to look for ways to stifle dissent and consolidate his personal control. (Never mind that Turkey has gone from “zero problems” with neighbors to “problems with nearly everyone” on his watch). Egypt has returned to military rule after a brief experiment with democracy, and former general-turned-President Abdel al-Sisi is angrily telling Egyptians “don’t listen to anyone but me.” Vladimir Putin is still riding high in Moscow, and both Viktor Orban in Hungary and Poland’s new rightwing government (controlled by party leader Jaroslaw Kaczsinsky) show strong authoritarian tendencies.

Meanwhile, back here in the Land of the Free, a vulgar tycoon with a flair for public relations and a mediocre business record is marching steadily toward the GOP nomination, based on a platform of bombastic xenophobia and a promise he will “make America great again.” He has yet to explain how he will do this, yet plenty of voters seem willing to believe that today’s complex challenges can be solved by hot air alone.

What’s going on here? What explains the resurgent belief that all a country needs is a strong and visionary leader who will transcend the messy business of democratic politics and guide his or her people to a new and brighter future?

For one thing, the temptation to place one’s faith in a strong leader has a long history. Athenian democracy succumbed to Alcibiades’ demagoguery, and a similar fate ultimately befell the Roman Republic. These lessons were not lost on America’s Founding Fathers, by the way, which is one reason the U.S. Constitution contains redundant firewalls against excessive executive power. Modern liberal democracy is a relatively new development in human history, and most social groups were not governed according to liberal norms and did not constrain leaders through an institutionalized system of checks and balance, let alone a written constitution. In most places most of the time, politics was a lot less like classical Athens and a lot more like Game of Thrones.

Furthermore, there are many sectors in society where hierarchical command is still the norm, and where big shots at the top get treated with awe and respect. Look at how we genuflect at titans of industry like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, or the late Steve Jobs, men not exactly noted for their humility or their eagerness to have their authority constrained by others or subject to public approval. There’s a similar reverence for military commanders, even those who didn’t exactly cover themselves with glory in America’s recent, mostly unsuccessful wars.

The lure of the Great Leader is even felt in the notoriously contentious world of academia, as universities search for dynamic presidents, provosts and deans who will raise scads of money, launch innovative new programs, raise the college’s academic rankings, get the football team to a bowl game, and keep students, faculty, staff and alumni happy. Yes, I know: corporate CEOs still have to answer to their Boards and shareholders (sort of), and university presidents and non-profit Executive Directors have to keep their trustees happy. Even so, these organizations are usually far from democratic, and people at the top are usually treated with considerable deference by their subordinates.

My point is that many modern institutions are run on mostly authoritarian lines, even in highly democratic societies. Given that we are surrounded by powerful people who are rich and famous because they are good at giving orders and getting people to follow them, is it all that surprising that many people are powerfully drawn to a similar model in politics? Add in the present faddish obsession with “Leadership Studies,” and the various academic programs seeking to recruit and train “great leaders” and you can see why so many people are convinced that the key to success is just getting the Right Person at the top of the organizational chart. Once you’ve bought into that basic paradigm, you’re well on your way to being an obedient drone.

I suspect the appeal of the Great Leader also reflects the present shortcomings of existing democratic institutions in Europe and North America, the transparent hypocrisy of most career politicians, and the colorlessness of many current office-holders. If you strip away the well-scripted pageantry that tries to make presidents and prime ministers seem all-powerful and all knowing, today’s democratic leaders are not a very inspiring bunch. I mean, seriously: whatever their political skills may be, can one really admire an undisciplined skirt-chaser like Bill Clinton, an insensitive, privileged bumbler like George W. Bush, or an unprincipled opportunist like Tony Blair? Does listening to David Cameron or François Hollande fill you with confidence and patriotic zeal? I still retain a certain regard for Barack Obama, who is both thoughtful and devoid of obvious character defects, but nobody is talking about him being a “transformational” president anymore. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton’s lackluster performance on the campaign trail and the clown show that is the Republican primary season is just reinforcing the American public’s sense that none of these people are sincere, serious, genuinely interested in the public’s welfare, or deserving or admiration or respect. Instead, they’re mostly out for themselves, and they would say and do almost anything if they thought it would get them elected. And if that is in fact the case (and many people clearly believe it is), then a buffoon like Trump or a grumpy outsider like Bernie Sanders are going to look appealing by comparison.

Lastly, entrusting one’s fate to a Great Leader is tempting because it spares us the burden of thinking for ourselves. For democracy to work, citizens have to pay a some amount of attention, be reasonably well informed about key issues, and be willing to hold politicians genuinely accountable for success and failure. By contrast, pinning our hopes on a Great Leader allows us to check our own judgment at the door: all we have to do is trust in the Leader’s alleged wisdom and all will be well. Given the repeated shipwrecks that democratic systems have produced in recent years (the financial crisis, Iraq War, Eurozone debacle, growing inequality, etc.) is it any wonder that some of our citizens are willing to turn the helm over to someone who conveys an image of independence, resolution, and confidence?

So should we throw up our hands and entrust our fate to a Great Leader who promises miraculous solutions to our present discontents? History warns against it. Great Leaders tend to think they are infallible, and they are often very good at removing threats to their rule and obstacles to their authority. Those qualities can promote efficiency, in the sense that lots of things can get done in a hurry. But that’s no guarantee that what gets done makes sense or will work. And when (not if) the Great Leader makes a mistake, who is going to stop them from driving the country over the edge?

As James Scott and Amartya Sen have explored in some depth, dictatorships are prone to truly enormous disasters, precisely because they lack the institutions that can hold leaders accountable and provide the information necessary to make mid-course corrections. For every successful autocrat like Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew, there’s a host of Great Leaders who led their countries to disaster. Look at Stalin: whose economic and social policies killed millions, and who left Soviet Russia vulnerable to a German invasion in 1941, which cost 20 million more Russian lives? Or Mao Zedong, whose “Great Leap Forward” produced a massive famine and whose misguided policies over three decades kept the Chinese people trapped in needless poverty. Napoleon may have been a genius on the battlefield, but the end-result of his unchallenged leadership was France’s total defeat, the deaths of a million of his followers, and his own ignominious and lonely exile in the South Atlantic.

The problem with entrusting one’s fate to Great Leaders is that we are all human, and no one is infallible (no matter what a leader’s cult of personality claims). With great power often comes hubris, and hubris unconstrained is a recipe for disaster.

If you’re planning to vote sometime this year, you might keep that in mind.

Photo credit: GENT SHKULLAKU/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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