My closest friend is spending the year at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland on a fellowship and, knowing of my interest in leadership, recently sent me a volume of essays on the topic he had found in a bookshop in that community: The Walker Trust Lectures on Leadership: 1930-1949. The book is superb and the commentaries offered during those years to audiences at St. Andrews are as timely and provocative as when first delivered. I was particularly struck by one theme of the collection, namely, individuals matter and what leaders choose to do matters profoundly, not only for their lives and the organizations for which they work, but sometimes too, for all of history. It is easy to imagine how different modern times might have been if Hitler had made different choices, or if Mussolini, Stalin, Milošević or Pol Pot, tyrants all, had used their gifts differently. But they did not and their deeply repugnant choices had implications not only for their own citizens, many of whom, it must be remembered, supported them, but also for countless others besides. This would seem to be an obvious brief for why individual leaders matter.
Nonetheless, modern leadership studies, and one might say too, modern American society more broadly, is deeply ambivalent about this point. Our society does not wish to argue simply that great men and women create history because it is altogether obvious there are countless other variables at play concerning causality. Nonetheless, and this caveat notwithstanding, Americans have long celebrated business entrepreneurs as if demigods. Any airport bookstore offers fresh evidence of this penchant. And, of course, we expect our President (or governor or mayor or legislator to lesser degrees) to fix the intractable and to address quickly any social malady that befalls us, or risk our collective wrath. And leaders must not only do these things successfully, but also undertake them in ways that comfort our souls as they do so. Witness the pundits who have criticized President Obama for not being “emotive” enough about the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and the many citizens outraged that he has not yet been able to “fix” the economy. And the President must be seen to care, and deeply, about the suffering economy in ways with which so-called average citizens who have been laid off may relate. He must be seen to “get it” and to be able to say how government can be harnessed to address that “it,” and very soon. One might easily apply this same claims-making to business organization leaders.
In short, we want our leaders to empathize deeply with us even as they “fix” our collective problems as quickly and painlessly as possible. So, popularly, we do seem as a group to imagine that our leaders are somehow critical, and we seem to imagine that if one cannot meet our often-inflated expectations, we may simply turn to another who surely will do so. And this being a reasonably democratic society, there are long lines of would-be leaders desirous of our favor who will promise just such a result should we turn to them. So, we live in something of a paradox as a culture. We want to believe that those we place “in charge” can sort through all of the often daunting complexities of the problems that confront us—energy, environmental sustainability, immigration policy, climate change, banking reform are all current examples—and we want to expect they can succeed, but it is nonetheless clear to any thoughtful observer that leaders cannot “fix” everything, nor are they the cause of all matters they confront in our name.
So, the trick, whether in interpersonal relationships and communication, in organizations or in politics may be to strike a reasoned balance concerning what may appropriately be expected of leaders. They obviously can influence events, but just as obviously they alone cannot unilaterally determine history’s course. Hitler had many strong supporters and perhaps especially auspicious circumstances that yielded the popular backing without which he could not have pressed the course he chose. Leader character does matter; jealous and small leaders hurt others as they seek to aggrandize and draw attention to themselves. Pompous and tyrannical leaders surely do the same. Leaders who lack imagination may also harm individuals, organizations or societies as they fail to take steps to secure necessary change, assuage oncoming problems or remedy injustices. All of these things are doubtless true. But the reasoned observer must be careful not to imagine that a leader may be found who can rise above all else and undertake the impossible when no one else can or might, despite our hopes and desires. Reality is always much more complex, even when we individually and collectively might devoutly wish it were otherwise. Additionally, too strong a desire to leaven or wish away complexity creates especially fertile soil for would-be unethical leaders all too willing to take advantage of such possibilities. As in much else regarding democracy and freedom, a judicious prudence regarding leadership and causation seems wise counsel.