Follow the leader
A while back I received an e-mail from a reader who made the following request:
I am writing to ask if you could use your insight to explore a subject that fascinates me, and that is leadership, and why, I feel, it is a subject that liberals are loathe to examine.They will sniff about intellect and articulation, but never approach the core component called leadership, and without that, what is there in a politician?
I read the daily moanings about Bush from all parts of the Right, and it alienates me, and I'm confused why so many lack my patience or perspective on what is and isn't important about politics during this WoT. I'm puzzled by the lack of faith in his leadership, or the doubts about its usefulness.
My first reaction was: nah, doesn't interest me enough to write about it. Besides, it wasn't something I'd thought very much about before.
But I found the question stayed in my mind. Then I read this post at Sigmund Carl & Alfred, which got me to thinking more about this curious lack--not just the lack of leaders, but the lack of talk about leadership, and the lack of desire for leaders.
I'm interested in why we (and I include myself here) are somewhat averse to the very word "leader." One of the commenters on SC&A touched on what I consider the heart of the answer, and that is that leaders require followers. Or at least we think they do, in the common understanding of the word "leader."
Now, who in American wants to be a follower? Practically no one. Individualism was built into this country from the start, and the distaste for a leader in that sense is not limited to the left--it's very strong on the right, too. The idea of "leader" is too close to royalty on the one hand and to dictatorship on the other.
What comes to mind when you hear the word "leader"--in the political sense, that is? One image it conjures up for me is that of a vast Nazi arena, row upon rigid row, standing as one and giving a rousing "Sieg Heil" and that straight-armed Nazi salute. Another image I have is of the defendants in the Nuremberg dock saying to a man that they were just good Germans, following orders. Leadership took a big hit post-WWII, when it became horrifyingly clear where the extremities of leadership could take human beings. For what, after all, does the word "Fuhrer" mean in German, but "Leader?"
And then there is Big Brother, another iconic image--fictional, this time, but very powerful nonetheless. Anyone who has ever read Orwell's 1984 is probably chilled by the memory of the leader whipping the workers up into a frenzy in the Two Minutes Hate.
Then there is the Soviet example of near-deification of Stalin and Lenin, which rushed in to fill the gap when religion was discouraged by the Soviets, as evidenced by the preservation of their corpses as a sort of secular/political equivalent of holy relics.
So we must be careful. And indeed, we have been. Since Vietnam and Watergate, the press has made it its business to tear down every possible idol, to expose our leaders' feet of clay at every step. This has the benefit that we are not likely to follow blindly or to idealize our leaders. It has the drawback that, blinded by cynicism, we often don't see their positive traits or credit them with any good intentions.
This tendency is particularly pronounced in that notorious cohort to which I must confess I belong, the Baby Boomers. Raised by parents who had renounced some of the authority of their own parents; encouraged by our numbers, prosperity, and the press to take our adolescent rebellion to extremes; many of us have taken the charge "Question Authority" to heart. Some never stop questioning it and rebelling against it, often just for the sake of rebelling.
This may indeed also be part of those leftist attitudes towards the military, a mixture of condemnation ("baby-killers!"), victimization ("poverty-stricken tools of the ruling class") and patronization ("robots").
It's the latter trait ("robots") that I believe ties into what I've been saying here: because the military must follow orders (except illegal ones) and is overtly and explicitly hierarchical, with clear leaders and followers, many boomers on the left who like to continue to think of themselves as free spirits have a special contempt for those who volunteer for it.
But in fact a military would be impossible without such a structure--and I assume that those who volunteer for it are well aware of why they have assumed the burden of needing, at times, to follow, as well as needing to act on their own initiative at other times.
I agree with SC&A that the ability to be inspirational is a big part of political leadership in general. But that inspiration can't just be emotional; it should be hard-headed, based on a calculation of the decisions that leader has made, and always reserving a portion of skepticism. If one has a real reason to admire what a person in a position of leadership has done, it isn't as hard to be a follower when necessary, or to trust that things are in generally capable hands. Nowadays, however, the deck is stacked against this sort of attitude towards a leader from either party, in part because the press (and the opposition) is determined to cut all potential leaders down to size.
That refusal to put a leader on too high a pedestal is a good thing, and it has a long and illustrious history in this country--starting with Washington's refusal to go for a third term. But, as with so many things, balance is important. I believe the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, and makes it hard to see whatever good really does exist in our political leaders.
How can a politician convince that he/she can lead? Churchill was an acknowledged wartime leader whose power to do so came at least partly through his stunning oratory. But we have seen that oratory is a double-edged sword--after all, Hitler is said (at least by Germans) to have been one of the greatest orators of all times, and to have exerted a strange and hypnotic spell on his listeners. I'm not a German speaker, but I find it hard to believe that Hitler's rhetorical power had anything in common with Churchill's except its power.
Of course, one of the criticisms of Bush, right from the start, has been his lack of verbal communicative skills. He's given some good speeches, but there's something in his delivery that is profoundly lacking, and it's especially lacking when he's speaking extemporaneously. Can a person exert leadership in the absence of such rhetorical abilities? I don't know, but it certainly makes the battle far more uphill.
A leader has to give off an aura of trustworthiness and strength, and I don't know exactly how that's done. Eloquence can certainly be part of it, although it can also deceive. And of course, words have to reflect more than the aura of strength and trustworthiness, it has to be the real deal. When you listen to a recording of Roosevelt actually speaking those famous words "The only thing we have to fear is, fear itself!" you can hear his own buoyant optimism come through loud and clear in his voice, and it lifts you up. Like a good parent (or leader), he comforts and reassures when it's needed the most.
Churchill was of a different sort: he spoke the worst and asked for sacrifice. Somehow, he got away with it. His personal courage was legendary, his voice an extraordinary and complex instrument that conveyed the deepest sorrow and yet the strongest determination possible. He fit the mood of his country and let them know they could endure anything, which was exactly what was needed at the moment.
When Lincoln was assassinated, the grieving poet Walt Whitman wrote the famous poem "O Captain! My Captain!" It's a lament for a leader fallen when the prize is so close at hand, a crie de cour on behalf of a nation bereft.
I'm not sure it would be possible anymore for this sort of metaphor and emotion about a leader to be expressed--or perhaps even felt--about a President. The feeling is composed of many things, but one of them is love.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up; for you the flag is flung; for you the bugle trills;
For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths; for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head;
It is some dream that on the deck,
You've fallen cold and dead.