Political Leadership and Political Power

Brown A.,

British political scientist and historian, FBA, Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University and an Emeritus Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford, where he was a Professor of Politics, new-polis@politstudies.ru

DOI: 10.17976/jpps/2016.01.08
For citation:

Brown A. Political Leadership and Political Power. – Polis. Political Studies. 2016. No. 1. P. 104-120. (In Russ.). https://doi.org/10.17976/jpps/2016.01.08


According to the author of the article, the personalisation of politics by the mass media, and an increased focus on the leaders of the major parties in parliamentary democracies, especially on whoever is prime minister, leads to an exaggeration of the contribution of the top leader to the policy process and to unrealistic expectations of the role this leader can play across the entire policy spectrum. It is also linked to a naive and unsubstantiated belief that a ‘strong leader’, in the sense of one who maximises his or her personal power, dominates his or her Cabinet and political party, and attempts to take all the big decisions in different areas of policy, constitutes the most admirable and successful type of leadership. In reality, insists Professor Brown, effective leadership is more often than not collective and collegial. A prime minister’s personal aides are usually among the most enthusiastic supporters of placing ever greater power in the hands of the head of government. This is not surprising, for they are the main beneficiaries of a leader cult and of concentration of power in the leader’s office. The more the leader is set apart from other elected politicians, the greater the independent influence – and de facto power – acquired by his or her non-elected advisers. According to the author of the article, there are many pitfalls for heads of government in foreign policy, especially if they choose to disregard the international expertise normally available in the foreign ministry of any well-organised government. Leaders who pride themselves on being ‘strong’, or who are anxious to appear strong, may be especially tempted by military intervention in another country. War leaders often have a higher prestige than peacetime premiers and presidents, although the risks to their reputations – and, more importantly, to the lives and limbs of others – are also high. The idea that one person is entitled to take all the big decisions, including those as momentous as whether or not a country goes to war, is antithetical to good governance and at odds with democratic values. In the light of experience with totalitarian and authoritarian regimes, with the varying successes and failures of transitions from authoritarian rule to democracy, and with the sometimes foolish decisions of democratic leaders, the persistence of the cult of the strong leader is curious. Leadership is not the same as power, and for a power-holder who is also a leader there are many qualities more valuable than strength, if strength is understood as maximising the leader’s power vis-a-vis colleagues, party, parliament and society, as distinct from strength of character which is, of course, an asset. Other leadership desiderata include integrity, intelligence, articulateness, collegiality, shrewd judgement, a questioning mind, willingness to seek disparate views, ability to absorb information, flexibility, good memory, courage, vision, and boundless energy. That is a formidable list, and it would be unrealistic to expect most leaders to embody all of those qualities. They are not supermen or superwomen, and they should always bear that in mind, although it would be unrealistic and a step too far to add modesty to this list of desirable attributes of a leader. The idea that the more power one individual wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader is a dangerous illusion, whether we have in mind authoritarian regimes, democratizing regimes or established democracies. To question the efficacy of placing overwhelming power in the hands of one individual leader is not to deny the need for efficacious state power, including a strong executive, provided that government is politically accountable to a legislature and society and can be removed in free and fair elections. While it is clear that groups and governments, even within democracies, are also not immune from making foolish, damaging and sometimes arbitrary decisions, the likelihood of this happening is substantially greater under unconstrained, or only weakly constrained, personal rule. When a leader can carry the day through the exercise of individual power, by pulling rank – rather than through a process of persuasion of colleagues of independent standing who are not afraid to provide counter-arguments and to question the conclusions of the top leader – then the incidence of mistakes with tragic consequences will mount. Finally, it would be a step forward if in their studies of leadership, political scientists paidmore attention to the leadership team as a whole rather than focusing so excessively on one person at the top of the hierarchy. In hybrid regimes and democracies, and not only in authoritarian systems, there has been a tendency implicitly to accept the hegemony of one leader and to take for granted that person having a quite disproportionate share of executive power within his or her hands. It is not, of course, surprising that heads of governments and their aides should assert such a predominance. What is more puzzling is how unthinkingly the idea of one leader being set above and apart from others should have been accepted by the ‘political class’ and by the broader society in a variety of different countries, democracies included. It is time to take a fresh look at the advantages of collective and collegial leadership and to appreciate the value to be derived from the talents, diversity of experience and political insights of a larger and more representative group than that which typically surrounds the top leader.

leader; leadership; power; democracy; politics; authoritarian regime.

Content No. 1, 2016

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