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David Bouchier: The Problem Of 'Leadership'

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Image by WIKILIAMAGES from Pixabay
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Napoleon Bonaparte

Truth is always the first casualty in an election, as in a war. In the electoral process the English language suffers some nasty injuries. Consider, among many examples, the idea of “leadership.” The word has been trumpeted around and fought over as if it was a universally accepted virtue, like wisdom or honesty. But leadership is just a neutral quality, like energy. It is not good or bad in itself. Leadership can take you to the top of the mountain or push you over a cliff. There’s nothing more depressing than hearing intelligent people crying out for leadership. Someone will be only too happy to provide it.

If we look to history, as we always should, we can certainly find great leaders, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dr. Martin Luther King and Winston Churchill. But if we consider political leadership down the ages it seems obvious that, on the whole, the suffering citizens of the world would have been better off without it. Think of some of the most famous political leaders of the past 2,000 years: Genghis Khan, Julius Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. Powerful leaders may be exciting to read about, but their legacy tends to be an enormous body count, and one or several destroyed societies.

Historically, strong leadership has usually been a problem rather than a solution, because strong leadership depends on weak citizenship. The leader’s job is to convince the rest of us that he or she knows best. This is absolutely never the case, as recent history has so vividly demonstrated. The role of the followers (the citizens, that’s us) is to do what we are told, and not to think too hard about it, or take any responsibility for it. That’s not democracy; that’s sheep herding. The British Prime Minister Disraeli got it the right way around when he quipped: “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?”

It’s so easy and tempting to fall for the leadership ploy. Reasoned argument and democratic debate are slow and difficult. Leadership is swift and simple, and very often violent because that’s the easy way to get people’s attention. The social media have put leadership on steroids. This began with Hitler’s effective use of radio in the 1930s, and now a leader can lie to millions of people directly. Ambitious leaders can construct a kind of parallel universe of lies and conspiracies to justify their power – it has happened over and over again in history. Social media also allow mobs to be conjured very quickly out of thin air – the so-called “flash mob” – like a phantom army always ready to obey the leader’s whim. If that’s not dangerous I don’t know what is.

So, where do we go from here? There were always lies, and there were always mobs, including the one that started the French Revolution. What these kinds of events have always had in common is what George Washington called “the spirit of faction,” the apparently irresistible urge to encourage division and tribalism.

Perhaps we simply need a break – a political season without wild ideological rhetoric and silly games, with a government devoted to administration, statesmanship abroad and problem-solving at home. This would give politicians time to think, and something to think about. Meanwhile the rest of us would have four years without leadership, which may be exactly the kind of leadership we need.

Copyright: David Bouchier