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Puzzling about political leadership

By R. A. W. Rhodes and Paul ‘t Hart


Since Machiavelli, political leadership has been seen as the exercise of practical wisdom. We can gain insights through direct personal experience and sustained reflection. The core intangibles of leadership — empathy, intuition, creativity, courage, morality, judgement — are largely beyond the grasp of ‘scientific’ inquiry. Understanding leadership comes from living it: being led, living with and advising leaders, doing one’s own leading.

In sharp contrast, a ‘science of leadership’ has sprung up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Thousands of academics now make a living treating leadership as they would any other topic in the social sciences, and political leadership is no exception. These scholars treat it as an object of study, which can be picked apart and put together. Their papers fill journals, handbooks, conference programs, and lecture theatres. Some work in the real world of political leadership as consultants and advisers, often well paid. This buzzing, blooming confusion would not persist if such knowledge did not help in grasping at least some of the puzzles that leaders face and leadership poses. And there are puzzles aplenty.

The first puzzle is whether we are looking at the people we call leaders, or at the process we call leadership? Leader-centred analysis has proved hugely popular but many now prefer to understand political leadership as a two-way street; an interaction between leaders and followers, leaders and media, leaders and mass publics.

The second puzzle is whether we are studying democrats or dictators. Democracy needs good leadership yet the idea of leadership potentially conflicts with democracy’s egalitarian ethos. Political leaders holding office in democratic societies live in a complex moral universe. Other heads of government gained power by undemocratic means. They sometimes govern by fear, intimidation, and blackmail. Is that leadership? However, even such ‘leaders’ may aim for widely shared and morally acceptable goals and rule with the tacit consent of most of the population. Understanding leadership requires us to take in all its shades of grey: leading and following, heroes and villains, the capable and the inept, winners and losers.

Vlad Impaler Woodcut Markus Ayrer

The third puzzle ponders whether political leadership matters. Leaders use their political platforms to inject words, ideas, ambitions and emotions into the public arena, to shape public policies and transform communities and countries. But when do they make a difference? What stops them from being a force in society? Or are political leaders a product of their societies? Finding out who gets to lead can teach us much, not just about those leaders, but about the societies in which they work. So, we ask who becomes a political leader, how and why? What explains their rise and fall?

The fourth puzzle explores the relative importance of their personal characteristics and behaviour compared to the context in which they work. Sometimes political leaders are frail humans afloat on a sea of storms and sometimes they survive at the helm when few thought that possible. They achieve policy reforms and social changes against the odds, and the inherited wisdom perishes. How do political leaders escape the dead hand of history?

The fifth puzzle wonders if the success of leaders stems from their special qualities or traits – the so-called ‘great man’ theory of leadership. However, we have to entertain the possibility that these allegedly ‘great’ leaders might have been just plain lucky; that is they get what they want without trying. They are ‘systematically lucky’.

The sixth puzzle is about success and failure. How do we know when a political leader has been successful? The temptation is always to credit their success to their special qualities, but no public leader ever worked alone. Behind every ‘great’ leader are indispensable collaborators, advisers, mentors, and coalitions; the building blocks of the leader’s achievements.

Political leadership is both art and profession. Political leaders gain office promising to solve problems but more often than not they are defeated by our puzzles. There is no unified theory of leadership to guide them. There are too many definitions, and too many theories in too many disciplines. We do not agree on what leadership is, or how to study it, or even why we study it. The subject is not just beset by dichotomies; it is also multifaceted, and essentially contested. Leaders are beset by contingency and complexity, which is why so many leaders’ careers end in disappointment.

R. A. W. Rhodes and Paul ‘t Hart are the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership. R. A. W. Rhodes is Professor of Government at both the University of Southampton (UK); and Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Lessons of Governing. A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (with Anne Tiernan, Melbourne University Press 2014); and Everyday Life in British Government (Oxford University Press 2011). Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance; associate Dean at The Netherlands School of Government in The Hague; and a core faculty member at the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Understanding Public Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan 2014); and Prime Ministerial Leadership: Power, Parties and Performance (co-edited with James Walter and Paul Strangio (Oxford University Press, 2013).

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Image credit: Woodcut from the title page of a 1499 pamphlet published by Markus Ayrer in Nuremberg. It depicts Vlad III “the Impaler” dining among the impaled corpses of his victims. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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