The events at the end of 2008, leading to change of leadership in Canada and the United States, bring up thoughts and questions about the requirements of leadership itself. It is clear that the world needs excellent leadership at this point, with human-caused threats of mass extinction from nuclear weapons and climate change. Yet it is very difficult to recall any excellent leaders throughout history. There is the truism “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” There are many recent examples of wholly inadequate leaders, leaders who complied with power but who did not lead, who perhaps aim to undo their own lack of integrity by reversing position when they retire from office. Paul Martin is suddenly a friend of aboriginal peoples in Canada and is trying to save forests in Africa. Jimmy Carter now speaks out about apartheid Israel, enlightened public education, housing for the poor – but as president he devised the deplorable “Carter doctrine” justifying U.S. resource exploitation through military intervention. As Olmert leaves office after expanding settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, he now says that Israel should withdraw from the territories. The list goes on.
The question of leadership is broad, complex, and obviously important. Over the last two centuries, historiography moved from the simplistic “great man” theory to identify other determinants of historical change. These include ecological and economic factors, conflicting ideologies (e.g. capitalism vs communism, the clash of civilizations), technological shifts, character differences (e.g. matriarchy and patriarchy, shame vs guilt cultures). Still, the personal decisions of people in positions of responsibility do have a catalytic effect so it would seem important to explore the psychological characteristics that make for excellent (or inadequate) leadership.
There are many fine critiques of current leaders, and I refer to two recent articles concerning character flaws in powerful people. The first is George Monbiot’s angry article “Lest we Forget” (Weekly Guardian November 11, 2008), about the old men who were responsible for World War I: “Faced, earlier in the century, with the possibilities of peace, the old men of Europe had decided that they would rather kill their children than change their policies.” Monbiot calls it “ephebicide — the wanton mass slaughter of the young by the old.” Monbiot describes the smug and flagrant dishonesty of men who have no capacity for concern for others, but he does not explain it.
In another angry article called “Mandela’s Smile”, Breyten Breytenbach (Harper’s December 2008) writes of Mandela as failed father and grandfather figure and failed comrade.He describes the deplorable state of violence, fear, and extreme poverty in South Africa, the leftover class and economic system unchallenged by the post-apartheid ANC. He writes of Mandela’s kindness and integrity, yet his inability to distinguish between “comradeship and obsequiousness.” He credits Mandela with saving South Africa from civil war but also blames him for not ushering in fundamental change. He defends his own right to demand excellence. “I wish to express my deep affection for you. You are in so many ways like my late father – stubborn to the point of obstinacy, proud, upright, authoritarian, straight, but with deep resources of love and intense loyalty and probably with a sense of the absurd comedy of life as well….[yet] should one, for the sake of worldwide euphoria, because we need to believe in human greatness, avoid sharing one’s confusion and disappointments with you?”
These are but brief extrapolations from these articles but they indicate the psychological side. There is allusion to parenthood, to generational differences. In clinical work, the hallmark of being in the stage of parenthood is the capacity to bear usable guilt and shame – with unwavering constancy, the ability to take on realistic responsibility towards others and to repair mistakes. Breytenbach demands constancy from Mandela, meaning the unwavering attention to and concern for all the people. He is clear that truth and reconciliation are not enough, that it is necessary to not be seduced by power and authority. One must be truly responsible. “We need to remember that we are bastards and forget that we’re obedient citizens. Indeed, that our absolute loyalty lies in the disobedience to power and in our identification with the poor.” Breytenbach outlines the obligation of both citizen and leader to not identify with power. He believes that Mandela can understand his words: “With abiding respect, and because I believe that smile was also sometimes a mocking one….”
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