Do we want powerful leaders?


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A trend toward greater authoritarianism seems to be spreading worldwide. Vladimir Putin has successfully used nationalism to tighten his control over Russia and seems to enjoy great popularity. Xi Jinping is regarded as China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, presiding over a growing number of crucial decision-making committees. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, recently replaced his prime minister with one more compliant with his drive to concentrate executive power. And some commentators fear that if Donald Trump wins the US presidency in November, he could turn out to be an “American Mussolini.”

Abuse of power is as old as human history. The Bible reminds us that after David defeated Goliath and later became king, he seduced Bathsheba and deliberately sent her husband to certain death in battle. Leadership involves the use of power, and, as Lord Acton famously warned, power corrupts. And yet leaders without power – the ability to cause others to do what we want – cannot lead.

The Harvard psychologist David C. McClelland once distinguished three groups of people by their motivations. Those who care most about doing something better have a “need for achievement”. Those who think most about friendly relations with others have a “need for affiliation”. And those who care most about having an impact on others show a “need for power”.

This third group turned out to be the most effective leaders, which brings us back to Acton. But power is not good or bad per se. Like calories in a diet, too little produces emaciation, and too much leads to obesity. Emotional maturity and training are important means of limiting a narcissistic lust for power, and appropriate institutions are essential to getting the balance right. Ethics and power can be mutually reinforcing.

But ethics can also be used instrumentally to increase power. Machiavelli addressed the importance of ethics for leaders, but primarily in terms of the impression that visible displays of virtue made upon followers. The appearance of virtue is an important source of a leader’s soft power or the ability to get what one wants by attraction rather than coercion or payment. Indeed, for Machiavelli, a prince’s virtues should only be apparent, never real. “I will even venture to affirm that if he has and invariably practices them all, they are hurtful, while the appearance of having them is useful.”

Machiavelli also stressed the importance of the hard power of coercion and payment when a leader faces a tradeoff with the soft power of attraction, “since being loved depends upon his subjects, while his being feared depends upon himself”. Machiavelli believed that when one must choose, it is better to be feared than to be loved. But he also understood that fear and love are not opposites, and that the opposite of love – hatred – is particularly dangerous for leaders.

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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.

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