To get my audiences thinking, I’ll sometimes ask, “Who’s the greatest leader in the world”? Before they can respond with the name of someone who’s six feet under, I’ll hasten to add, “The leader has to be living – alive not dead.”
Until recently, the single name that almost everyone in any group agreed on was Nelson Mandela. As soon as his name was mentioned, everyone in the room seemed to concur: he was the greatest of all living leaders. But, Mandela has now passed, which leaves people stymied. Who is the greatest leader of all? Different people come up with different candidates – none of which elicit widespread agreement.
Asking people to identify the single greatest leader is, of course, something of a mind game. It is, nevertheless, an interesting exercise, if only because it reveals how small is the number of leaders widely considered “great.”
Still, I have my own current candidate for such an honorific – Bill Gates. Gates was one of the greatest leaders ever in technology. And, more recently, he is, along with his wife, Melinda Gates, one of the greatest leaders ever in philanthropy. A twofer unlikely soon to be rivaled.
Still, how you measure “greatness,” or even how you define it is fungible, flexible, malleable, variable. Open to interpretation and different points of view. If, for example, being a “great” leader is thought to depend only on the leader’s being effective, not on his or her being ethical, then names other than the likes of Gates come to mind – such as, now, inevitably, that of Vladimir Putin.
The degree to which Putin has accomplished what in his wildest dreams he perhaps imagined is stunning – even stupefying. Setting aside Crimea and Syria and the revival of European nationalism and populism, there is this. Under Putin’s leadership, Russia has derailed America’s political system. Russiagate makes it even more difficult than it already is for Washington effectively and efficiently to function. Putin has at least partially paralyzed American politics which might – or it might not – make him the “greatest” leader in the world.