It is a pleasure to find a book on political leadership that imposes no theories or models but studies actual political leaders, dozens of them from many countries, in a historical survey from the beginning of the 20th century.
In "The Myth of the Strong Leader," Archie Brown, an emeritus professor of politics at Oxford, provides a guided tour through the great, the famous and the merely recognizable names among those figures who deserve to be held up as examples, good or bad, of leadership. The professor enjoys making summary judgments, which he does with the dispatch if not the wit of an Oxford don.
Mr. Brown is, however, burdened with a thesis. He argues that the strong leader is a myth—that true strength is not what it appears to be. Adolf Hitler, to cite an obvious case, might strike one as a strong leader, but, according to Mr. Brown, his "greatness, other than in a capacity to whip up evil, was an illusion." He was strong in the sense of having a vigor that led to "ruinous adventures" but he came to a terrible end in despair and suicide. The strong leader, we may surmise, is defeated by his hubris, and his greatness, such as it may have been, is erased, his overreaching punished with rejection and execration.
The allegedly weak leader, however, who consults with colleagues and moves with caution, can reap success. He is certainly rewarded with the professor's praise. No one receives more of it than Clement Attlee, the British Labour prime minister known for his modesty—"he never used one word when none would do" (a reported joke)—who from 1945 to 1951 accomplished the "redefining" task of bringing socialism to Britain.
The other main hero of "The Myth of the Strong Leader" is Mikhail Gorbachev, who, like Attlee, was a practitioner of what Mr. Brown calls "collegial leadership." The author, an expert on the Soviet Union, championed Mr. Gorbachev's accomplishments in an earlier book. In Mr. Brown's estimation, the Russian leader is the one who ended the Cold War (it wasn't Ronald Reagan ).
While Mr. Brown holds up Attlee and Mr. Gorbachev as model leaders, his bête noire is Tony Blair. Of the many leaders discussed in the book, the former British prime minister receives by far the most attention. Mr. Blair believed that prime ministers ought to be strong and that he exhibited strength by taking Britain into the war in Iraq and by exorcising the spirit of socialism from the soul of the Labour Party. In Mr. Brown's view, domestically Mr. Blair was merely continuing Margaret Thatcher's program, and in foreign affairs he did the bidding of George W. Bush, a man "unexceptional in talent." The "Napoleonic" Blair thought he was strong but wasn't; he was weak because he was carried away by a delusion of his strength.
Here Mr. Brown makes a general point that could survive his application of it to Messrs. Blair and Bush: Strength is truly strength only when it is well-directed. When misdirected, apparent strength is genuine weakness. Though often used in a value-free sense, "strength" truly means effective for good, not for ill. The so-called strength of hubris arises from delusion and can end in failure or disaster.
In this way, Mr. Brown brings out the weakness of apparent strength, yet the book overlooks the strength of apparent weakness. Is it not possible for a leader to pretend to consult his colleagues while actually maneuvering against them? Could he not then blame them for a bad result, while taking credit himself for a good one? The collegiality that the author's argument hinges on depends on trust in a common cause, but leaders are often wicked enough to take advantage of the foolish goodness of those they deceive.
Mr. Brown does consider rather sympathetically David Lloyd George, a domineering British prime minister who was known for his guile. Yet what of the guile that knows better how to conceal itself? Even in leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, whom Mr. Brown praises as an "outstanding example of how collaborative and collegial leadership could be combined with attachment to principle," deceit is a concealed weapon carried with the license of a wise moralist. Lincoln's publicly expressed attitude toward slavery had to reflect the majority's, but his mind was always ahead of the public, driving popular sentiment toward emancipation.
Contrary to Mr. Brown, modern leadership is modesty itself: It is characterized by the myth of the weak leader who pretends to be less than he is. The U.S. Constitution refers to the American president as "the executive," apparently meaning that he merely carries out another's will. This device is common to democratic and anti-democratic regimes, for both claim to carry out the people's will.
However vital the distinction between democratic and anti-democratic regimes, one must not overlook their underlying similarity in claiming to be democratic. The anti-democratic regimes that flourished in the 20th century (and remain in the 21st) were not opponents but perversions of democracy. Hitler and Stalin were popular figures, and so is Vladimir Putin today. This is nothing new: The ancient philosophers made a point of the connection between democracy and tyranny, as did the authors of "The Federalist Papers." So does Mr. Brown in calling Tony Blair "Napoleonic." The danger lies in the gullibility of democratic people when they follow a leader who proclaims himself their champion against perceived enemies.
Experience has shown that this danger can be successfully countered only by leaders with the strength to address the delusions of their own people, as did Churchill and Roosevelt. Such leaders show that in democracies the only cure for one-man rule is a better one-man rule. And such leaders cannot expect to be thanked by their people. Churchill was voted out of office in 1945 and replaced by Attlee, who took advantage of this act of base ingratitude to begin the prime ministership that Mr. Brown celebrates.
Mr. Mansfield is professor of government at Harvard and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.