The literature on leadership focuses nearly entirely on the relationship between leaders and followers. From Plato’s Republic to Freud’s Moses and Monotheism to the countless contemporary tomes on the subject, the spotlight is on how leaders are, or are not, able to get their followers to do what they want them to do.
This suggests that there is at least one area of study that has been badly neglected: the relationship between leaders and leaders. What, in other words, is the dynamic between two (or more) people when neither is prepared to play the part of follower and when both seek to claim, and to maintain the mantle of leader?
As we have just seen, this is precisely what happens in the domain of international relations. When President Joe Biden flew to Europe last week to gather with many other leaders of many other countries, culminating in his encounter with Russian President Vladimir Putin, he met not with his subordinates or constituents, but with his equals. To be sure, the United States is much more powerful a country than is, say, France or Belgium. Still, When Biden got together with France’s President Emmanuel Macron or Belgium’s Prime Minister Alexander De Croo they did so as equals. One was in no formal or obvious way subservient to the other.
The point pertains especially to the relationship between Biden and Putin. Though Russia is in virtually every way far weaker than the United States, it is a point of enormous pride to Putin to present himself as the equal of any other leader on the planet. In fact, anyone who understands Putin at all, or indeed what happened to Russia since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, has a visceral understanding of how important to Russia’s identity, and to Putin’s, is this posturing of strength.
Usually, one of a national leader’s most important domestic policy responsibilities is to initiate change and then to implement it. But, ironically, one of a national leader’s most important foreign policy responsibilities is precisely the opposite. In fact, managing leader-leader relations, as opposed to leader-follower relations, might well depend on the national leader’s willingness not to lead or, at least, not to appear to lead.
There was no way in hell that Putin was going to allow himself to appear anything less than Biden’s full equal. This meant that Biden’s task was to appear in charge and in control – while at the same time conveying to Putin that he was not trying in any way to dominate him.
The leader-leader dynamic tends to be especially fraught when it pertains to leaders of countries with a long history of conflict between them. With a few significant exceptions – such as the years 1941-45, during which Joseph Stalin and Franklin Roosevelt were wartime allies – the United States and Russia fall into this category. For example, President Richard Nixon met several times with the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. But while these meetings were cordial enough, and sometimes even productive, there was no mistaking the impression that each of the two men were the other’s equals. And that each were leaders of superpowers that were much more adversaries than allies. Not for nothing was the world at the time considered bipolar. Not for nothing were such meetings called summits.
Whatever the ultimate outcome of yesterday’s encounter between Biden and Putin, the dynamic between them is unfamiliar. Leader-leader relations differ from leader-follower relations in that the latter has been widely studied, while the former has not. This should change.