I have had several conversations recently about leadership, which for me is a bit of an enigma. I have always regarded myself as a bit of rebel, as someone who not only resists being told what to do, but who has a strong imperative to challenge any imposed authority. But recently, and particularly in politics, I have found myself seriously thinking that some strong leadership is required, particularly in terms of an effective opposition to our current government, and on the world stage in relation to our climate and ecological breakdown. But I have no sooner had these thoughts than the warning bells start sounding. I remind myself that strong political leaders like Mussolini were initially welcomed onto the political stage as solutions to a political crisis. And we all know what happens next.
I am not even sure I know what I mean by leadership! Perhaps a certain quality or set of qualities / abilities that certain people seem to have? Something you can’t define in advance, but recognise when you encounter them? For example, Confucianism has described these qualities in terms of five virtues (intelligence, trustworthiness, humaneness, courage and disciple) which a leader must not only have, but have in the correct balance. If this so, then how do you explain the popular appeal of politicians such as Johnson and Trump? They both seem deficient in most of these virtues. But perhaps that’s an unfair question. Perhaps it’s wrong to equate being popular with leadership, even though both of these clowns appear to have, from the perspective of their supporters, the charisma that Max Weber thought so essential to political leadership.
If a certain set of virtues is the way to understand good leadership, one missing from the above list is vision – that ability to not only possess a clear picture of what it is you want your group / community / nation to achieve with you as their leader, but to be able to communicate that picture to the group. And in many ways this vision (together with the other relevant virtues) must be context specific. Arguably Churchill was a very effective war-time leader, managing to utilise his persona and rhetorical skills to unite the nation at a time of extreme crisis, but a very poor leader of the following peace. What this country so desperately needs during our current constitutional crisis is an effective leader of the opposition – someone capable of presenting a clear alternative vision of the future that a significant number of the public could muster behind and support. Even more importantly, what we need both nationally and internationally is leadership capable of presenting a clear vision of a post climate and ecological crisis world.
A third approach to understanding leadership is perhaps to take a functional approach and argue that the role of a good and effective leader is to meet group needs. I could see the value of such an approach in certain contexts, but what if the group is unclear as to what their needs actually are? What if (as I think is the case at the moment) the needs which people think they have (to consume what they like, travel where they like, and accumulate as much wealth as they are able) are actually inconsistent with the vision the potential leader has. If the leader’s assessment of the future is accurate, yet, for the sake of acquiring power appeals the ‘needs’ of the group instead, they will surely fail. In which case, the real quality our great leader will require is the ability to change the group’s understanding of their perceived needs. Now there’s a challenge!