Friday, November 15, 2013

What do we want from our leaders?

by Sheila Connolly

The other day I was driving somewhere and found myself wondering, “did Napoleon have anxiety attacks?” Don’t ask me why I was thinking of Napoleon—it’s not something I do often. But I asked myself, did he wake up in the middle of the night and ask himself, Am I doing the right thing?

Think about it. Here’s the man who wanted to take over most of the civilized world. But physically he was tiny: I once saw a uniform that had been his, in the chateau of Malmaison in France where he lived with his wife Josephine, and he was far shorter than I am, and slighter (although pudgy in his later years). One source I looked at said he was 5 feet 6½ inches tall. My daughter is taller than that. This man was an emperor and commanded armies. Don’t you ever wonder how he did that?

And what about all those other historical figures that we grew up hearing about (the condensed version, at least). Do you ever find yourself pondering, Was Julius Caesar allergic to grain? Was Joan of Arc afraid of spiders?

We don’t have answers to many thing like this because it clouds our cherished vision of these people as somehow larger than life, or more than merely mortal. They had power; people followed them, and sometimes died for them. How could they be flawed?

There was an interesting article in the Boston Globe recently, titled “The myth of the visionary leader,” by Leon Neyfakh, about whether the public figures who we admire—presidents and the like—are actually the best leaders. We think we want vision and charisma and boldness, which are obvious traits. According to a 1977 paper by Abraham Zaleznik, classically heroic leaders possess imagination and a tendency toward risk-taking. In other words, they are bigger and better than we are.

Charisma may not be a good tool for actually getting things done, although that doesn’t stop us from voting for charm and good looks. But what we really need is someone who can make things happen, who is flexible, who can make effective compromises—not the people who hog the limelight and are in the love with the sound of their own voices.

Curiously, two weeks later in the Globe there was another related article, this one by Joanna Weiss. She was addressing the fact that it was kind of hard to distinguish between the two Boston mayoral candidates, both decent people and accomplished politicians (and both men of Irish background). In order to separate themselves they fell back on their own life stories. Weiss included in her analysis the example of Abraham Lincoln, cited by historian Michael Vorenberg. When Lincoln ran for President in 1860, he perceived that what the people wanted was an independent, self-reliant, strong individual; someone who stood out from the other politicians, who were mainly elite urban lawyers. So Lincoln’s handlers polished up the story of the boy raised in a log cabin, splitting rails and reading by firelight—a story we still repeat in schools today. The reality was that Lincoln was, yes, a smart lawyer in a suit (and without a beard), but that wasn’t what the voters wanted. Lincoln tailored his public image and won.
Would you vote for this man?
Should we as voters feel cheated? Manipulated? Or are we totally jaded by the endless onslaught of political spin? What do we really want from our leaders, and what does it look like? (By the way, Boston will have a new Irish mayor. Now, which one was he…?)
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Coming November 22nd

1 comment:

JJM said...

"One source I looked at said he was 5 feet 6 1/2 inches tall. My daughter is taller than that. This man was an emperor and commanded armies. Don't you ever wonder how he did that?"

Same way any other future emperor would -- he was clever; he had leadership qualities, an air of command; he wasn't bad at strategy, either; and he was ambitious and driven. He was also on the taller side of average height for European men at that time. :-)