When I was a graduate student at Yale University – in the prehistoric age, the 1970s – there was no such thing as leadership studies. In fact, the words “leader” and “leadership” were not even in my department’s lexicon. Business schools covered “executives” and “managers,” and “management” was one of their important areas of study. But my field, political science, abjured the idea that individuals could and sometimes did make a big difference.
Even back then I wondered why this was the case, when it seemed obvious that from time to time at least were “great men” – I’m leaving the semantics aside – who had a great impact on how history was made. More specifically, they were as, or even more responsible for what happened than anyone else or anything else.
I write this as someone who has spent years focusing not only on the importance of leaders but of followers. And not only on the importance of leaders and followers but of the contexts within which they’re located. Still, our misguided and mistaken aversion to personalizing politics, specifically to ascribing to one individual the power to determine outcomes persists. It’s almost weird, as if to bestow such explanatory power on one person is unsettling.
I was glad, therefore, to see that Robert Kagan, one of our shrewdest observers of the so-called world order, made the point in his recent piece in Foreign Affairs* He writes about how the world is periodically exploded by “the brutal realities of international existence” – as it was when Putin invaded Ukraine.
Events have forced Americans to see the world for what it is, and it is not the neat and rational place that the theorists have posited. None of the great powers behave as the realists suggest, guided by rational judgments about maximum security. Like great powers in the past, they act out of beliefs and passions, angers, and resentments. There are no separate “state” interests, only the interests and beliefs of the people who inhabit and rule states.” (Bolding mine.)
It’s clearly hard for us to attribute to a few individuals – leaders – wretched behaviors that can wreck our lives. It’s so much easier, for example, to say that “Boeing” was responsible for two fatal crashes of its 737 MAX airliners (one in 2018 and one in 2019) than to hold accountable the CEO at the time (Dennis Muilenburg) along with some of his underlings.
“Boeing” though is an abstraction. It is company. Similarly, Russia is an abstraction. It is a country. But… abstractions don’t make decisions. Companies don’t make decisions. Countries don’t make decisions. People do. Leaders do. So let’s get real. Let’s name names. Not just some of the time. All the time.
*In the January/February 2023 issue.