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Pure Onsense

Challenges of Leadership

Scott Zuke

(July, 2010)  As we celebrate this Fourth of July and reflect upon the origins of our nation, we should take advantage of the occasion to examine our political beliefs, not just in terms of our opinions on specific issues or more general political philosophies, but also in regard to our views on leadership. What are the qualities we value in our leaders and representatives?

It is a more complicated question than it appears at first glance, and lately it seems to be the underlying issue in all of the major stories of the summer. The most obvious place we see it is in the lead-up to the mid-term elections, for which the leading storyline thus far has been whether the tea party movement, with its focus on libertarian values and rhetoric that incessantly invokes the Founding Fathers, will spur an anti-incumbent revolt in November.

There is also the story of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which began as an historic ecological disaster but, after the initial shock dissipated and the rush to find a quick solution failed, soon became a referendum on President Obamaís leadership. So recently criticized for implementing Big Government solutions to health care and the recession, he has now come under fire for being too slow to react to the spill. His leadership has been heavily scrutinized from the beginning: Is he too professorial? Is he too angry? Not angry enough? Progressives say he hasnít pushed strongly enough for their issues, and conservatives accuse him of creating a tyrannically overbearing federal government.

But letís put aside these stories for a few minutes and examine just the question at hand. What makes a great leader? A rich history of philosophical and political thought has gone into answering this question. In The Republic, Plato conceived of the ideal political leader, the Philosopher-King, as an absolute ruler with the unique ability and training needed to see the true good and serve the city-state by ensuring that it remains just and orderly. In his view, the only way to prevent tyranny and injustice was to give absolute authority to a perfectly good, wise, and incorruptible individual. Good luck with that, Plato.

More familiar and useful to us would be Aristotleís ethics based upon the virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Later, these would merge with Christian virtues such as modesty, charity, compassion, etc., but a general virtue ethic still seems to be the most common way we evaluate our leaders. Do we trust them? Are they good role models? Do we generally find them to be likable and praiseworthy?

Falling short of these criteria is damaging to a politician, but not necessarily fatal to his or her career. This is due perhaps to Machiavelliís insights in his controversial treatise, The Prince. In it Machiavelli recommends that a ruler adopt principles of political expediency over traditional, deontological (duty-based) morality. "A man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good," he writes. Political leaders seem to have a unique set of moral principles requiring them to act sometimes in a way that would be impermissible for any other person. This puts them in a difficult position: while their actions are immediately judged according to how successfully they benefit the state, they will still ultimately have to answer to the people if those actions crossed accepted moral boundaries. Machiavelliís advice is that a leader need only appear virtuous, while quietly retaining moral flexibility. The very idea of an uncompromising politician is a contradiction, yet it is something voters will almost always demand.

Another complexity of republican systems of government arises from the second half of our question: do we elect leaders or representatives? Do we want our elected officials to passively convey our wishes, or do we want them to independently evaluate an issue, use their best judgement, and take the initiative to convince us to support their chosen course of action? Here again, elected officials have a near impossible task in straddling these contradicting roles.

The tea party movement mostly favors electing humble representatives who will follow the will of the people within constitutional limits. Interestingly, the Founding Fathers were nearly the complete opposite of this description. They were elites who developed their own new political views, quite unlike anything the rest of the populace imagined, much less asked for, and fought tirelessly to convince the people and Congress of their new planís wisdom. They were leaders in the truest sense. And incidentally, they had trouble abiding by the very Constitutional limitations they themselves drafted (e.g. Madisonís failed attempt to block the Jay Treaty).

So when the tea party says that we need more leaders like the Founding Fathers, what do they mean? If they believe that adhering to the principles of the Founders is the sole key to success, two problems arise. First, the Founders disputed their own principles and made significant compromises in order to pass the Constitution, even though their personal views had not changed. And second, even when they followed the law, they still made significant errors both at the executive level (Jeffersonís failed Embargo Act of 1807 and Madisonís failure to avoid the War of 1812) and the legislative (Alien and Sedition Acts).

In short, there appears to be no single proven way to answer our question of what qualities we should value in our leaders and representatives. The best we have done has been to uncover an interesting law of political reality: the publicís adoration of any individual ceases once that individual is granted power over them.

Since government necessarily requires that the governed are ceding some of their freedoms to an outside authority, distrust and dislike for that authority is inevitable, regardless of that authorityís character, actions, or principles. Or, as Lyndon Johnson once summed up the challenge of leadership: "If one morning I walked on top of the water across the Potomac River, the headline that afternoon would read: ĎPresident Canít Swim.í" This is why truly great leadership is rarely appreciated during its time, and why the clever leaders are more concerned with their legacy than their poll numbers. It is also why looking to historyís great leaders offers little help in evaluating those of the present or choosing those for the future.

Read other article by Scott Zuke