Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Great leaders are not often good leaders

I have been extremely busy with college projects recently, and unable to update The Harvest - sorry about that.

Now, just a quick point. I remember on an Orkut discussion forum years ago I asked if 'great' leaders were very often bad leaders.

Public polls on the greatest ever citizens of some country often choose mighty leaders who won glorious victories. For a while one public vote in Russia saw Josef Stalin in the lead, although some people blamed this on computer hackers inflating his votes. A British equivalent saw Winston Churchill take first place and the Russians finally settled for the brilliant medieval prince Alexander Nevsky, who won decisive victories against Catholic European invaders when Russia was at its weakest. Stalin, Nevsky, Churchill - all were powerful military leaders who marched their nations to crucial victories in war. Stalin was also a terrible tyrant who had millions of people murdered. Churchill was an eager imperialist who recommended using chemical weapons 'against recalcitrant Arabs as an experiment'. He oversaw the use of paramilitary 'Black and Tans' to put down the Irish War of Independence, a force which became notorious for its indiscriminate violence:
They were in any case explicitly instructed to step outside the law, one police divisional commander instructing his men in a speech: "If a police barracks is burnt then the best house in the locality is to be commandeered, the occupants thrown into the gutter. Let them die there; the more the merrier."

He instructed them to shout "Hands up" at civilians, and to shoot anyone who did not immediately obey. He added: "Innocent persons may be shot, but that cannot be helped, and you are bound to get the right parties some time. The more you shoot, the better I will like you, and I assure you no policeman will get into trouble for shooting any man."
This is not to say that Churchill was an especially wicked leader by any means. I wondered, though, where were the peacetime leaders? Why did people not get excited by those competent rulers who kept their countries peaceful and prosperous and did not suggest gassing civilians?

Today I read this from David Henderson at Econlog:
Historians and journalists commonly survey other historians on the relative "greatness" of American presidents, and these rankings show remarkable consistency between surveys. In this paper we consider commonalities between highly ranked presidents and compare plausible determinants of greatness according to historians. We find that a strong predictor of greatness is the fraction of American lives lost in war during a president's tenure. We find this predictor to be robust and compare favorably to other predictors used in previous historical research. We discuss potential reasons for this correlation and conclude with a discussion of how historians' views might affect policy....

Beyond that, we should stop celebrating, and try to persuade historians to stop celebrating, presidents who made unnecessary wars. One way to do so is to remember the unseen: the war that didn't happen, the war that was avoided, and the peace and prosperity that resulted. If we applied this standard, then presidents Martin van Buren, John Tyler, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, to name four, would get a substantially higher rating than they are usually given.
This is a good point, I think. Henderson talks more about the incentives modern leaders may have, knowing that only wartime leaders get a legacy of greatness, but I don't have the time to read them just now. I am reminded, though, of Mike Duncan's History of Rome podcasts which occasionally described emperors who were fortunate to rule in a time of peace, yet felt they needed to wage and win some war to gain legitimacy. Much provoking of Germans and Persians was done by these leaders eager for glory.

All this makes me grateful to live in a tiny country with no imperial history, no memories of glorious battles, no experience of international war since independence in 1922, and apparently no appetite for adventuring abroad today. I'm content with good over great.


  1. I wonder how many of the "great leaders" throughout history would have been tried for war crimes today?

  2. Absolutely, Rohan.

    I wonder if humans are just drawn to powerful military leaders because of the violent conditions of the past, when being on the winning side was absolutely critical.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.