Where Have All The Leaders Gone?

Steven Hayward

August 1, 1998

No refrain is more typical today than the lament that we lack leaders worthy of the name. But on closer inspection it can be seen that many of the people making this complaint wouldn’t recognize a true leader if he walked up and poked them in the nose.

Consider the following indicator: Back in 1950, Time magazine named Winston Churchill “Man of the Half-Century,” observing that “no man’s history can sum up the dreadful, wonderful years,1900-1950. Churchill’s story comes closest.” But then last fall, Life magazine, the other flagship of the Time-Life empire, offered its list of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Churchill was not on the list. Meanwhile, back at Time, a burst of modesty has led the editors to give up on their own editorial judgment in the run-up to the inevitable Person (or People) of the Century designation, and so Time is taking a poll on its website asking Time readers who they think should be included among the top 100 most important people. Churchill is still on their list of suggestions, but so are quite a few people of decidedly lesser stature, such as Nelson Mandela, who appear chiefly because they conform more closely to the newer under
standing of leadership. (These are the same people, remember, who still had confidence enough back in the late 1980s to name Gorbachev the “Man of the Decade.”)

If you thought that this obvious degeneration is another expression of elite media bias or Orwell’s Memory Hole at work, you would be mistaken. There is an emerging intellectual theory –“leadership studies”– to justify disregarding the great men of our past in favor of mediocre men and women of our present. Leadership studies is one of the fastest-growing subfields in academia (though whether it belongs in business or political science is unclear, which is the first hint of trouble), as well as a subject of intense interest in the world of executive seminars. Leadership books and their gurus have been rightly dismissed, as John Micklethwait and Adrian Woolridge do in their recent book The Witch Doctors: Making Sense of the Management Gurus (Times Books), as little more than faddism, chichés, one-part motivation, one-part obvious common sense, one-hit wonders, and less. G.K. Chesterton remarked that there is but an inch of difference between the cushioned chamber
and the padded cell, and the difference between Tony Robbins and Tom Peters often seems slight indeed. You might call it “Total Quality Leadership.”

But the problem with leadership studies is a lot more serious than mere hucksterism, however.

I came face to face with the problem when I set out to write for a general audience a book about Churchill’s executive management practices. Such books are extremely popular these days. Donald Phillips’ Lincoln on Leadership has sold several hundred thousand copies. It was a great surprise that no such book had been written about Churchill, who is in many ways a better subject for this kind of treatment than Lincoln, and certainly better than Attilla the Hun, who was the subject of one of the first big-selling books in this genré. Though there was no single book on Churchill, I expected to find him appearing frequently in the leadership literature.

But he is almost nowhere to be found. He is scarcely mentioned in James McGregor Burns’ 500 page tome on leadership, which, published way back in 1977, is regarded as among the more serious works in the field. Even more startling was a recent offering from Donald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers (Harvard University Press), which goes on for several pages about Hitler but mentions Churchill not at all. “When influence alone defines leadership,” Heifetz writes, “Hitler qualifies as an authentic and successful leader: he mobilized a nation to follow his vision. . . Furthermore, by the standard of organizational effectiveness, Hitler exercised formidable leadership. Within hundreds of specific decision making instances, Hitler succeeded in developing the effectiveness of German organizations.” (Memo to Marge Schott: Get this book.)

This passage suggests what has gone wrong. The general disapprobation of the “great man theory of history” has now extended to the idea of leadership itself, the one area that might reasonably have been expected to survive the modern assault of relativism. Like every other area of what were once “moral sciences,” leadership studies have succumbed to a value-free viewpoint. “Understandably, scholars who have studied ’leadership’ have tended to side with the value-free connotation of the term because it lends itself more easily to analytic reasoning and empirical examination,” Heifetz declares. The obvious problem of Hitler prompts him to offer the important qualification: “Rigor in social science does not require that we ignore values; it simply requires being explicit about the values we study. Placing Hitler in the same general category as Gandhi or Lincoln does not render the theory value-free. On the contrary, it simply leaves its central value

Another leading author, Joseph Rost (Leadership for the 21st Century, Praeger), is even more explicit that the old sources are passé: “The extended discussions of Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, and Weber are beside the point, as none of them wrote about leadership.”

Instead of leadership based first and foremost on moral character and clarity of purpose, the most highly prized trait of “leadership” today is the ability to forge “consensus” through “non-coercive models of interaction.” In this model, “hierarchy is out, and loosely coupled organic networks are in.” (These phrases appear in several of the, uh . . . leading books on the subject.) One of the most popular definitions of “consensus leadership” is “an influence relationship between leaders and followers who intend real changes that reflect their mutual purposes.” Such definitions make it possible to go on at length about Hitler’s leadership abilities. It raises new possibilities for a sequel to my Churchill on Leadership, such as Stalin on Leadership: The Complete Guide for the Command-and-Control Executive.

Now, what would Churchill say about this “mush, slush, and gush”? Early in Their Finest Hour Churchill remarks that “An accepted leader has only to be sure of what is best to do, or at least to have made up his mind about it.” There is no reference here to the necessity of followers, of “mutual purpose,” or of consensus. In fact, though Churchill, like anyone in the public life of a democracy, had to operate within a structure that required collective deliberation and persuasion, he hated the tendency of drifting toward the lowest common denominator that we today praise as “consensus,” and it was precisely this aversion to consensus that accounts for his success. Churchill wrote that most strategic failure owed to “the total absence of one directing mind and commanding will power.” He complained endlessly about the tendency of collective bodies where “everyone claims their margin at every stage, and the sum of the margin
s is usually ’no’.”

There is a memorandum on this problem Churchill wrote at the Admiralty in 1912 that could easily be the germ of a Dilbert cartoon: “There is one epicycle of action which is important to avoid, viz–recognition of an evil; resolve to deal with it; appointment of a committee to examine it and discover the remedy; formulation of the remedy; decision to adopt the remedy; consultation with various persons who raise objections; decision to defer to their objections; decision to delay application of the remedy; decision to forget all about the remedy and put up with the evil.”

Another person who is conspicuously absent from the leadership literature is Margaret Thatcher. And no wonder. The Iron Lady had nothing but contempt for the central value of modern leadership gurus: consensus. “The Old Testament prophets did not go out and ask for consensus,” Thatcher remarked. She described consensus more expansively as “the process of abandoning all beliefs, principles, values and policies in search of something in which no one believes, but to which no one objects; the process of avoiding the very issues that have to be solved, merely because you cannot get agreement on the way ahead. What great cause would have been fought and won under the banner ’I stand for consensus’?”

Thatcher does rate an entire chapter in Howard Gardner’s Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (Basic Books), but despite the recognition of her success in office, she does not come off well, in part because her formative political years occurred during Churchill’s wartime premiership (from which she presumably learned stubborness), rather than during a more normal epoch. “Her self-confidence slid easily into intolerance, inflexibility, and moralism,” Gardner laments. He thinks she would have been better off had she “built bridges” to her critics. Finally, he thinks “We will not know for decades whether she effected a fundamental reorientation in British political life or only a momentary detour.” (Gardner wrote this in 1995.) Tony Blair would likely give a different answer.

And it is almost needless to say that Ronald Reagan is also missing from the leadership literature. Gardner, for instance, subscribes to the standard view that Reagan was “lazy” and “uninformed.” Heifetz thinks Reagan’s proposal for strategic missile defense, while imaginative, was a reflection of Reagan’s lack of attachment to reality. Dinesh D’Souza shouldn’t expect his book on Reagan’s leadership to appear on the syllabi of formal leadership studies programs.

The good news is that, as usual, the general public is not yet wholly contaminated by the vacuousness of the intellectual approach to leadership. My modest volume is selling briskly, as is a new offering by Tom Morris promisingly titled If Aristotle Ran General Motors (Henry Holt). Now if we can get Aristotle back in the universities, we just might get a few leaders who think emulating Churchill, Thatcher, and Reagan is not such a bad idea.

Steven Hayward, Bradley Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Senior Fellow with the Pacific Research Institute, and Adjunct Fellow at the Ashbrook Center is the author of Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity.