Shortly after I started as a bus driver at Go Wellington as a Bus Driver I recall overhearing drivers talking about the company changing shifts to reduce drivers’ overtime pay. One driver, a former bank teller believed the problem was the union leadership. In his view what the Tramways Union needed was “a smartly dressed lawyer in a suit and with a good haircut to come and sort everything out.” Instead of this, the drivers ended up with me as their union president, no suits but I did eventually get a haircut. More importantly, what drivers got was a democratic union where drivers stood together and improved their pay and conditions.
The Great man of history theory is nothing new and has been quite seriously rebuffed by historians for many years. In Leo Tolstoy‘s War and Peace he firmly rejected the “great man” (and when he wrote this in the 1860s, it was men who were being written about), a theory claiming that in fact, they are only “history’s slaves.”
Yet, much of history is still written about and from the perspective of our leaders. In politics, it is a truism that leadership is of paramount importance, yet few can really define what ‘leadership’ really is. The common features tend to be personal strength, decision-making powers, bringing together and managing a team, the ability to communicate, and in effect being the human embodiment of a political ideal or movement. More cynically, money, good looks, fame, and various superficial qualities also help.
It is certainly true that the performance of a party leader can decide an election result, and this is understandable as they are in a position of responsibility where they must exercise judgment. The risk though is that the personal qualities or weaknesses are given greater emphasis and boring detail like tax policy is reduced to who came up with the best slogan or soundbite.
This issue is not a new one. Whilst it is currently vogue to blame all the world’s ills on social media, the reduction of politics down to a popularity contest of leaders predates Twitter. It has probably always been a feature of politics and certainly something that has constantly been a feature of democracies. Leaders with deep voices for example have tended to perform better, as physiologically we find them more authoritative.
The problem is, once we understand that to be a successful leader it helps to have certain qualities and mannerisms, those with ambition quickly start to act the part. Building a personal brand based on characteristics common among successful leaders has become the tried and trued playbook of many ambitious upcoming politicians, business leaders, and others aiming for positions of power. Maybe this is just smart and anyone who is ambitious needs to learn these unwritten rules? But when many believe politics and civil society is in decline, should we not think more critically about leadership?
There can be very little doubt about the importance leadership has played in recent politics. My recent post about Rishi Sunak and the state of the British Conservative Party outlines, the challenges facing the UK Government today make it very difficult for the Tories to win the next election. Whilst Rishi Sunak certainly has some of the qualities of a successful leader, he is simply too constrained by the situation he faces to really lift support for the Conservative Party now, though this may change. Likewise in New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern’s meteoric rise to power in 2017 and global popularity shortly after, dissipated throughout 2022 as the current economic crisis hit.
To paraphrase Harold MacMillan, what shapes the course of political history is “events dear boy, events”. Having certain qualities can get one into leadership positions, but ultimately one’s time in power is judged by how one responds to events. And more often than not, leaders only have limited control of these or their own legacy.