The Power Of Great Leaders

This file photo taken 15 October 1990 sh

Joshua Tucker uses political science to downplay it. Stephen Dyson counters:

Why do political scientists place less emphasis on the importance of individual leaders? One reason is that science means moving from studying specific phenomena to developing general explanations. Why South Africa democratized leads to the question of why countries democratize. The more instances of democratization that there are to explain, the less the vivid details of each case – such as a monumental leader – seem to matter. Explanations of many events cannot logically rest on the idiosyncrasies of one event.

The distinctive features of a leader – Evan Lieberman identified Mandela’s remarkable self-restraint – are also harder to measure than factors like the economy.

Why it’s worth focusing on individuals:

Tucker draws our attention to the dangers of the “great leader” view of politics: it promotes apathy and resignation as we wait for superheroes to appear and fix all of our problems. Yet there are also dangers in minimizing the role of leaders, and they go beyond missing important causes of major events, although this is a clear risk. In the explanations of historians, the reporting of journalists, and the political decisions of citizens, leaders often play the role of personifying abstract trends, ideas, and forces, and offering a human connection between politics and life. People learn, understand, and are motivated to take action by compelling narratives, and compelling narratives involve individual human beings. A worthy goal of science is to provide systematic, rigorous knowledge about issues of social importance. But science should also engage with the moral and empathetic possibilities that come from taking leaders seriously.

Alas, political science – a misnomer from the get-go (and I say that with a PhD in it) – is terrified of human nature, individual character, the unknowable biographical and psychological factors that bear down on any leader’s decisions, and anything that, effectively, cannot be quantified. But a huge amount of human behavior cannot be quantified. Which is why I often thought, as I sat through another stats class, that we’d do better to study Shakespeare than mere regressions to the mean.

(Photo: This file photo taken 15 October 1990 shows African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela sitting beneath Mahatma Gandhi portrait in New-Delhi.  By P Mustafa/Getty. I don’t think Mandela is asleep.)