What is leadership all about? As we found out at our recent ECPR workshop, many of our ideas lead back to that most straight talking of theorists, Niccolo Machiavelli, author of The Prince. His aim was to explain the end point of leadership capital-what makes leaders succeed or fail?
His problem for posterity was that, as Quentin Skinner put it, he was honest, possibly too honest, about the need for politicians to be dishonest. Machiavelli spent time as ambassador to the court of Louis XII and travelled with Cesare Borgia so may know more than most about the twists and turns of political leadership. Since the Prince was published in 1513, Machiavelli attracted criticism from Shakespeare and praise from Mussolini and Napoleon, which didn’t really help his reputation. He is still used to dispense advice on the Brown vs. Blair feud and to proffer tips to Ed Miliband. His exact meaning is still debated-see these recent pieces by Canadian politician Michael Ignatieff and philosopher John Gray.
So what advice would Machiavelli give to modern leaders? First, Machiavelli welcomed clarity. He advised that a leader needs to come down on one side or the other of an argument-being neutral meant you lost either way. A leader must give ‘striking demonstrations’ and reveal himself in favour of ‘one side or another’ without an attempt to hedge or be neutral.
Second, when deciding on a course of action, Machiavelli warned that a leader must ‘shun flatterers’. A leader must always ask and question but too much praise from flatterers will lead to ‘changes and indecision’. He should ‘make up his own mind by himself’.
Third, Machiavelli, rather unexpectedly, advised that a good leader should go with what the populace want. Machiavelli may or may not have been a democrat (that’s still hotly debated) but he had a keen sense that any successful leader needed the ‘people’ with him or her.
Machiavelli’s final point is the most important. While supporting clarity, Machiavelli was also a supreme realist in terms of the need to adapt- Margaret Thatcher’s famous advice to ‘always leave yourself a way out’. Machiavelli believed most of the politicians he had known had displayed ‘a fatal inflexibility in the face of changing circumstances’. So a politician needs to be able to move with events. ‘Prosperity’ in all senses, he warns, ‘is ephemeral’. The final theme is the central one: that of uncertainty. Change is inevitable. He repeats often how a politician must shift if circumstances change: ‘one who adapts his policy to the times proposers’ and one who does not will fail. Hence his advice to do what is good when possible and bad when necessary-in the name of adaption. This is the essence of Machiavelli. Leaders take note…
Last week marked the fiftieth anniversary of the US Civil Rights Act 1964, one of the most important (and difficult) pieces of legislation passed in modern US history. It was President Lyndon Johnson who pushed it through, after nearly a century of resistance from the Senate. President Kennedy complained that no one could judge a President until they had ‘sat in the chair’. This review of Robert Caro’s fourth part of his huge biography of Lyndon Johnson is unique in that it is written by another President-Bill Clinton. Clinton speaks of his admiration for Johnson in pushing through a bill that, months before under Kennedy, seemed stuck fast in the House of Representatives:
You don’t have to be a policy wonk to marvel at the political skill L.B.J. wielded to resuscitate a bill that seemed doomed to never get a vote on the floor of either chamber. Southern Democrats were masters at bottling up legislation they hated, particularly bills expanding civil rights for black Americans.
Clinton goes on to explain that Johnson’s pursuing of this bill strikes to the core of what being the President is-spending political (or what we would call leadership) capital:
Their skills at obstruction were so admired that the newly sworn-in Johnson was firmly counseled by an ally against using the political capital he’d inherited as a result of the assassination on such a hopeless cause. According to Caro, Johnson responded, “Well, what the hell’s the presidency for?” This is the question every president must ask and answer.
Clinton goes on to explain Johnson’s capacity for persuasion and the need for a politician to do something:
I said then that too many of us spend too much time worrying about advancement or personal gain at the expense of effort. We might fail, but we need to get caught trying.
A number of commentators have compared Obama with LBJ and reflected on LBJ’s ability to pass ‘sweeping’ legislation where most others have failed (or have not even been caught trying). The difficulty is to know why? Was it his (terrifying) persuasion, the famous Johnson treatment (see photo above)? Was it his tactical knowledge and skills, honed through years as majority leader in the Senate? It was all these things but also more. While Johnson himself was an immensely skilled legislator, it was the assassination of his predecessor Kennedy that created a context and a cause which could be used. It is untangling this complex picture that can prove so hard in leadership studies.
Interestingly, as a side note the current state of the voting rights is fast becoming a key political issue following a succession of court decisions over voter identification and registration-both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have spoken out against these incremental changes around the voting law. It seems LBJ’s ghost has not gone away yet.
Measuring Political Leadership
This website forms part of a wider project to develop measurements of political leadership using the idea of leadership capital. This can help us better understand:
- How much authority a leader has when in office or power
- How they use it
- How and why they lose it
Measuring political leadership is difficult. As a number of scholars point out, it involves measuring many different things:
- Personality-are they a good communicator? A good manager? Can they inspire or forge strong bonds?
- Resources-what power or influence does their position give them? Do they have a team, a large machine? More difficult, does their office have prestige?
- Context– what situation do they find themselves in? Have they won an election? Is there an unexpected event? A crisis or a war? More broadly, where in the world are they?
These issues are just a few of the possible things that can make or break a political leader that we look at in our Leadership Capital Index