Review: The leaders we deserve?

Review: The leaders we deserve?

Robert Shiels reviews Warriors, Rebels and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X.

A simple question: do leaders make history, or does history make leaders? Seeking an answer formed the basis of a course by the author on leaders and leadership in history at Harvard University.

The debate in understanding leadership is said to be deciding between those (like Machiavelli) who believe that leaders make (and overcome) history and those (like Marx) who believe that history makes (and constrains) leaders.

The author by means of the book aims to provide material illuminating the essence of a broad range of examples of leadership in the past, and to reflect on its relevance now.

The reader is also able to come away with confidence in their ability to challenge leadership, to be wary of their leaders, and even aim to replace them. Good luck all round with that.

The main focus of leaders in the good times, the author asserts, is management — “making sure things stay stable and that no major mistakes are made”. It may actually be a bit more than that.

The author suggests that it is when a crisis hits that leaders in place are tested. There is purportedly a difference between fair weather leaders and others who can cope with difficult times.

In extensive narrative those options are considered in context, although much of it understandably relates to acute issues in very divisive modern American politics.

Yet, a substantial part of the illustrative material relates to the leadership, possibly to be stated in other terms, of Mrs Thatcher who was in office for eleven years, a long period by recent standards.

The best comment that might be offered in review is that the author has settled on an incorrect title for his book: perhaps it might more accurately be “The Art of Political Leadership”.

Some of the concepts emerging from the discussion might apply in other areas, such as military leadership and leadership in business or the civil service, but these areas have their own demands.

One thing is clear, hackneyed assertions (such as, “make the lawyers do more”) by those placed unsuitably in high authority hardly constitute meaningful leadership.
There is a quote somewhere about students doing best in exams when quoting parts of, or ideas from, the books of their own professors.

That is very sound advice, and it has to be said anyway that this is an interesting thematic study of history that borders on, and probably informs, other important practical disciplines.

Warriors, Rebels and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X by Moshik Temkin. Published by Profile Books, 320pp, £10.99.

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