On Political Leadership

It took me a while to figure out how to write this post. I wrote one of those long boring ones at first and decided it wouldn’t fly so my index finger held down the backspace key for a long time.

Political Leadership has to be my all time favorite course during my poli sci years, probably because the theory behind it was all so vague and it left so much to the imagination of the reader. It was up to you to do draw conclusions about who a leader is, what a leader is and why it’s all so important.

A common conclusion drawn on the Arab street is that after Israel and America the greatest source of our problems is the lack of leadership. Some will plead with the heavens for another Pan-Arabist Nasser or the more nostalgic will pray for another Salah il-Dein. Personally, while we might have a general atmosphere of weak leadership in the region, I think most of our problems stem from ourselves, our societies; the functioning of our dysfunction. That however is a longer and more complicated topic for another post.

Watching a bunch of West Wing episodes lately (yes I know, I’m a WW nut) I discovered that there was a lot to be said about political leadership throughout the show. Much of which one could compare to political thinkers like Burns and transformational leadership. Weber and Charismatic authority. Plato’s philosopher-king. Or Schmitt and Agamben grappling with states of exception. Machiavelli and Hobbes, Kant and Rousseau. Tolstoy’s king being “history slave”

If I had to guess I think the writers took a lot from these thinkers and tried to apply it with a shared sense of idealism. Because often times we look at the what “could be” or “should be” and perhaps ignore the “what is”.

If you’re unfamiliar with the show it’s all right, this post is not dedicated to me talking about ancient political thinkers or about the West Wing. These quotes are meant to inspire people to critically think about what political leadership entails. I use them in the same manner professors of politics use quotes from such great thinkers to teach their students. I don’t want to simply go into an essay on what I think leadership is or isn’t. With this topic in particular I find myself enjoying the struggle with the questions rather than the answer.

In one scene that takes place during the time of a presidential race, Josh sends his assistant Donna to essentially spy on a motivational speaker who has been consulting for the Republican nominee Ritchie (a subtle nod to Bush). She brings back a book from the seminar filled with summarized quotes of writers such as Plato, Kant and Frost in cliche paperback form but Donna doesn’t get why Josh is so obsessed with this:

…Because what does it remind you of? ‘I believe in hope, not fear. I’m a leader, not a politician. It’s time for an American leader. I before E except after C!’ It’s the fortune cookie candidacy!

These are important thinkers, and understanding them can be very useful, and it’s not ever gonna happen in a four-hour seminar. When the president’s got an embassy surrounded in Haiti, or a keyhole photograph of a heavy-water reactor, or any of the 50 life-and-death matters that walk across his desk everyday, I don’t know if he’s thinking about Immanuel Kant or not. I doubt it. But if if he does, I am comforted at least in my certainty that he is doing his best to reach for all of it, and not just the McNuggets. Is it possible that we would be willing to require any less of the person sitting in that chair? The low road? I don’t think it is.

Political leadership conjures up a million questions. None of which any one can claim to have the answer to but are nonetheless worth debating if one wishes to better understand his or her world.

For example: what are those qualities that allow someone to be regarded as a leader? To give him or her a following? Is it strength, bluntness, honesty, charisma, intellectualism? Being folksy and plainspoken? Or articulate and eloquent? Young and youthful or aged and experienced?

In times of war the masses tend to flock to tough-talking leaders and charismatic intellectuals when they’re looking for jobs. Sometimes we’re looking for a moral leader, someone with ideals we feel connected to, perhaps even a streak of religion. Different people look for different things.

Many of us look for gravitas. Actually, we don’t really look for it, it simply arrives and we recognize it when we see it…

Sam and Ainsley arguing on what the most important attributes of a leader should be:

Ainsley: Does it concern you that the smartest Presidents have been the worst?

Sam: I don’t grant your premise…

Ainsley: Why?

Sam: Because before I look for anything, I look for a mind at work. Nobody’s saying the President
needs to have a tenured chair in semiotics, but you have to have…

Ainsley: What?

Sam: Gravitas.

Ainsley: And how do you measure that?

Sam: You don’t, but we know it when we see it

Sometimes we search for a visionary…

Toby: If our jobs teach us anything it’s that we don’t know what the next President’s gonna face. If we choose someone with vision, someone with guts, someone with gravitas who’s connected to other people’s lives and cares about making them better, if we choose someone to inspire us, then we’ll be able to face what comes our way and achieve things we can’t imagine yet.

The popularity and support of a leader can derive from his charisma inspiring a following. Which begs the question: do leaders make the followers or do the followers make the leaders?

Bob Russell: You know what they call a leader with no followers? Just a guy taking a walk.

In another episode:

…you’re like the French radical watching the crowd run by and saying, ‘There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them

(This is actually a reference to the French politician Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin.)

Yet another question is that of expectations. The expectations we set for political leaders are usually one’s we ourselves don’t meet. All around the world people hold their leaders to a much higher standard. Making them, as Max Weber would put it, “superhuman” and “supernatural”.

Santos (speech): We’re all broken — every single one of us — and yet we pretend that we’re not. We all live lives of imperfection and yet we cling to the fantasy that there’s a perfect life and that our leaders should embody it, but if we expect our leaders to live on some higher moral plane than the rest of us, well, we’re just asking to be deceived… Don’t vote for us because you think we’re perfect. Don’t vote for us because of what we might be able to do for you only. Vote for the person who shares your ideals, your hopes, your dreams. Vote for the person who most embodies what you believe we need to keep our nation strong and free.

This flawed leader comes up in another scene where President Bartlet is reflecting on whether his smaller mistakes are a reflection of much larger ones:

Bartlet: “. . . if I’m making mistakes there, how do I know I’m not doing it when it comes to matters like death and destruction?”

Sam: “Well, probably you don’t ’cause there’s no manual. Sir, we expect the President to face the world in his own way for his own time.

A concept I always found interesting about leadership, much of what was discussed, was that of destiny and fate. This is where we get into much more philosophical realms. Is someone destined to be a leader? Does he have control over history, over fate? Or is he merely “history’s slave” as Tolstoy would put it. And if he is, then is a leader merely a pawn? Did Hitler come along because it was his destiny to rule, to have Germany in a state of disrepair, to play on people’s pride and fear, to have all those stars align for him just right? Can the same be said of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr? Or Mossulini? Or Ghandi? Had they come at different times in the respective country’s histories, would they have been as successful?

In one scene Toby argues with Josh over the latter’s decision to convince the initially reluctant congressman Santos to run for office:

Toby: He’s not presidential material.

Josh: Why?

Toby: Why? Because he left. He left congress, he left Washington to go home to do small important work. You had to haul him by the hair out of the family bed. Did you never stop to wonder if that was a good choice?

Josh: He stepped up. When presented with the opportunity…

Toby: Men in that job shouldn’t have to be presented with anything! It’s for someone who grabs it and holds on to it. For someone who thinks the gods have conspired to bring him to this place. That destiny demands of him this service! You don’t have that kind of drive, that kind of hubris, how in the hell are you going to make the kind of decisions that stump every other person in this country? How in the hell are you going to hold that kind of power in your hands!?

These are just some of the questions political leadership can inspire. And they are not futile questions at all. To wonder, to question, to grapple with, to try and understand what a leader is, is also a way of trying to comprehend our place in this world as individuals. To understand our past, present and future. To understand what is required of us. What is expected of us. All of us.

I hope this post got the gears turning in some people’s minds.

But if you end up writing the sequel to Mein Kampf please don’t dedicate it to me.


  • Ah, West Wing. I don’t have anything personal against the show except that it’s television. It’s a network’s idea or what politically “could be” or “should be” (as you say). If accepted as pure entertainment (read not real life), then it’s a perfectly enjoyable show. Unfortunately most people take it for more than it is, which tends to lead people towards pie-in-the-sky ideas of how politics (and real life) works.

  • Dave: like i said, this post isn’t about the television show but about political leadership. the idealism is embedded in every political thinker’s philosophy.

    the idealism is meant to get people to think about leadership, hence the point of this post.

  • Don’t worry, I read the entire thing and I see where you are coming from. I just know that there is a big difference between the idealistic leader and the realities of politics.

    For example, I once had a Palestinian friend ask me what I would do concerning Palestine if I were president of the United States. I paused and thought about it for a minute and responded, “That’s a tough one. I’m not sure.” He gasped, appalled that I wouldn’t just kick the Jews out and turn it over to the Palestinians. You see, he has an idealistic mindset about how things should happen, but real life dictates otherwise.

    On a similar vein, most of the world blames George Bush (solely) for the problems in the Middle East, based on an idealistic view of how American politics works. Many people don’t realize that the President has limited power and generally can’t act outside of other political ruling bodies. But few people go around blaming Congress for the problems in the Middle East; they are content to pin it on Bush as the figurehead.

    Idealism will only get you so far. In an idealistic world, I happen to think that I would make a pretty decent US President (although I wouldn’t want the job). The reality is that the background politics (the stuff that you don’t see or hear about unless you are a political junkie) would eat me up and spit me out, leaving me with little opportunity to affect change.

  • Dave: some good points there. let’s not forget that most of the world does not have a system of governance like america’s and even those that do will still regard the “leader” as the person with all the power and thus all the responsibility. at worst they are symbolic representations of policy.

    as for idealism and realism, obviously most political thinkers that focused on leadership up until the 20th century were looking at it idealistically.

    but that’s the thing…even we as followers and those that have followed before us, will look at a leader with a sense of idealism. that the person before us has greatness written all over him. so that perception is something i find interesting

  • nas, great post! i remember in high school they used to make us do those essays in history class, ‘was So-So a hero or an opportunist?’

    i think the IDEA behind the West Wing is THINK! granted its audience is bunch of Americans who can’t fill in a map of their own country, don’t know 90% of he countries and controversies discussed in the series, and other than Bush, Cheney and Condi; they couldn’t give you the name of a White Houser…so the show presents them with short clippings of what to think about…and they will, because they saw it on TV.

    how many out there n Blog Land believe that if Martin Sheen ran for president in the upcoming elections…that he would have a landslide win because Americans really believe he is the American President and that they have seen him in action! scary consideration!!!!!

  • Nas,
    There are occasions when leadership is thrown at you by default and you may or may not have chosen to be a leader in the first place. Take me for instance: I have been in a leadership position for the last 30 years; I was promoted from one position into the next until I became the department head. Now when I look back I wish that I was never chosen to be in a leadership position. I’m not much of a leader at all but since I’m an organized person and solve problems quickly and manage large staff under extreme pressure conditions, I look like I’m meeting the entire requirement of a good leader. In reality I’m doing it just to get a pay check and I can care less if I was one of the guys or their main leader it makes me no difference.

  • hatem: that’s an interesting perspective, sometimes leadership is definitely thrust upon a person. our king abdullah is an example of that.

    but then we could go back and argue destiny.

Your Two Piasters: