Commentary Upfront Blog

What defines a leader most

From Russia to the Philippines and beyond, strong leaders have become popular. But that sort of strength can be ephemeral.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives at a May 2016 summit meeting in Sochi, Russia.
Reuters | Caption

Has there ever been a more popular subject for inspirational office posters, self-help books, or convention speakers than leadership? The business world is swimming in the mythology of great leaders and tip sheets on being like them – from dressing for success to winning through intimidation, from searching for excellence to mastering the art of the deal.

Leadership isn’t just aphorism and affectation, of course. It is a necessary quality. At one time or another, most of us need a little direction, a little cheering on, someone to carry us through hard times, provide us with air cover. Some people are better at this than others. Sure, there are amusingly skewed leaders, as in the needy boss played by Steve Carell in “The Office” (“Would I rather be feared or loved? Easy. Both. I want people to be afraid of how much they love me.”) or the smaller-than-life despot played by Charlie Chaplin in “The Great Dictator.” 

Perilous times (wartime, for instance) call for strong leaders. Winston Churchill was not beloved before or after World War II but was indispensable during. And there are causes – civil rights in the United States, ending apartheid in South Africa – in which an inspiring leader changes minds and transforms society. But ever-strong leadership is an overrated ideal, especially in a democracy but even in an autocracy. So argues Archie Brown, a professor of political science at Britain’s Oxford University and author of a masterful recent study of contemporary leaders, “The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age.” 

“Good leadership,” he writes, “requires many attributes, whose relative importance varies according to time, place, and context. It should never be confused with the over-mighty power of overweening individuals.”

Vladimir Putin is a strong leader. A slew of his contemporaries see themselves that way – Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Xi Jinping in China, Narendra Modi in India, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in Hungary – and new ones who are just getting started. Their common thread? Each wants to restore national greatness, is skeptical of political correctness, taps into a significant amount of popular sentiment.

In a Monitor cover story (click here), Peter Ford and other Monitor correspondents look at what Mr. Putin’s 18 years at Moscow center have wrought. When Putin rose to power in the late 1990s, Russia was a mess: empire gone, economy struggling, insurgency threatening. The Putin years have rekindled national pride and, to the distress of many of Russia’s neighbors, put the country back on the map. President Trump, who built his career on his own legend of leadership, has repeatedly praised Putin’s.

As with every leader, Putin’s success is measured both in real time and in legacy. Undoubtedly, Russia is back – as a kingmaker in Eurasia, with new influence in the Middle East, a bulwark of conservative values to some admirers. But every leader is also judged by history. A strong leader feels he alone can fix things. A transformative leader helps people to fix their own things.