The biggest problem with great leaders is not just that they are hard to come by. It is not even the fact they often prove destructive rather than creative.
A good deal of debate has surrounded the role and results of policy forged by history’s “great leaders.” This debate has gone on for years and reached few conclusions. To begin with, it is not clear whether great leaders shape the turning points of a society or whether, in contrast, these are the reason why they become “great.” If, for example, World War II had never broken out, Winston Churchill would have gone down in history as the failed First Lord of the Admiralty who sullied the Royal Navy with his ill-considered Dardanelles campaign. Even greater debate surrounds the efficacy of their policies. Joseph Stalin was the secret idol of every sclerotic communist in the world and now (as internal documents of the Greek Communist Party’s Central Committee have revealed) he is about to become a paradigm of the “rational construction of Socialism.” For his millions of victims, though, as for their families, he remains nothing more than a cold-blooded killer, despite the fact that he brought electricity to every corner of the USSR.
We will never, of course, be able to weigh the good against the bad caused by the world’s “great leaders,” nor assess to what extent they shaped history or were shaped by it. While both are certainly true, we will never know the exact extent, which is why it is impossible to create “great leaders.” They simply appear and we only discover in retrospect whether they were the real thing or not.
There is a prevailing desire in Greek society for a great leader to come its way, for a politicians who will straighten everything out. Some dream of another Constantine Karamanlis, others (there are more of this bent) of another Andreas Papandreou. Others yet dream of a Stalin and some a Vladimir Putin. This hope is unfounded: even if we were to agree on what makes a great leader, it is statistically almost certain that we will end up with a mediocre rather than a great one. This, at least, is what history tells us: whatever your ideological leanings, a look at the past shows that the “great leaders” have been few and far between.
The second point is that we can never know in advance. Many present themselves as “great leaders” in their pre-election campaigns and prove middling over the course of their careers. Others are considered insignificant and are later recognized as having been great once their careers are over.
Ronald Reagan reshaped his country and is considered by Americans as one of the greatest presidents in the history of the USA, yet he started his career as an ultraconservative governor in California with little to show for his work.
The third thing we need to be wary of is that great leadership is usually accompanied by a good deal of bloodshed. Hitler, for example, was a great leader for Germany in the interwar years. He took a country ravaged by war and internal strife and transformed it into a mighty power. He then went on to destroy it completely. Unfortunately, “great leaders” (either way a rare species) are seldom benevolent leaders. They are usually complete bastards who mire their people in misery for the sake of some higher (non-material and non-quantifiable) ideal. They sell (inedible) seaweed for silk when it comes to their rhetoric on the nation, Socialism, the ideal society, etc.
So, for a society to stand by waiting for a great leader to come along and solve its problems, is like banking on the Lotto. In fact, if you subtract the number of great leaders from the total number of leaders that have existed through history, it becomes clear that it is more likely to pick the winning lottery numbers than to chance upon a great leader. So, just as it makes for sense for an unemployed person to look for a job rather than to study lottery betting systems, so it is more reasonable for a society to build the institutions that will deal with its problems regardless of the leader it happens to elect. It doesn’t take a Putin to send a Khodorkovsky to Siberia (a decision that was to a large extent arbitrary); it takes an efficient justice system that will quickly investigate and adroitly punish the protagonists of corruption. You don’t need a superhero prime minister and his sidekicks to instantly solve every problem, down to the long queues at the Social Security Fund branch of Neos Cosmos; you need an efficient public administration to prevent long lines from forming. You don’t need a state that is big and capable of giving everything its citizens want – such a state [sic], said Barry Goldwater, is also “big enough to take it all away” – but a state that will create the right conditions and allow its citizens to give themselves everything they want.
There is something almost romantic about the desire for a big state as their is in the anticipation of a great leader (even though in many cases they must go hand-in-hand: a great leader needs a big state mechanism to solve problems and often a mechanism that will not be subject to the delays and inefficiencies of the democratic process).
The romance lies in the belief that there could be a philosopher’s stone that would address all social issues, some golden measure or a “golden child” that would solve all of our problems. But this not just a dangerous way to go – a great leader can also be a great tyrant – it is also the idler’s choice. A society that depends on a “great leader” to solve its problems is ultimately looking for a crutch. It doubts its own abilities and is unwilling to even try. It is waiting for a miracle.
The biggest problem with great leaders is not just that they are hard to come by. It is not even the fact they often prove destructive rather than creative. It is that they do not produce results which can be maintained in the long run. Even if someone were to overcome the current conditions, if they were good as well as great, from the moment that society and its institutions are not brought up to the standard of his grandeur, his achievements can last only as long as his reign. And precisely because he is “great,” his grandeur becomes a black hole that sucks in society’s problem-solving abilities.
It is undeniably difficult, painful and time-consuming for a society to build solid institutions capable of solving problems. Yet this is the only safe way to achieve real prosperity. And this is why the wisest way to go is to maintain the democratic institutions we already have on the one hand, and improve them on the other. And if a “great leader” should come our way, well that’s just icing on the cake.
Published in Kathimerini newspaper 09.21.2008