Strong leaders or good governance?

What drives current politics? Thirty years after the fall of authoritarian communist regimes in Europe, old and young democracies the world over are experiencing challenges to the principles of democratic governance. At the same time, authoritarian leadership styles have gained greater attention and impact on the global political stage. Political scientist and historian Archie Brown explains why “strong leadership” is a myth, why simple answers are misleading and how, even today, successful leadership is inspiring political change. 

This is an abbreviated version of our interview with Professor Archie Brown. For the long-read version (PDF), please follow this link.

Professor Brown, when looking back thirty years from today, has the hope for democratic change in the Soviet Union and its successor states proven too optimistic?

The euphoria of 1989 has long gone. Increasing inequality, widespread corruption and unimpressive political leadership have all contributed to the growth of disillusionment in the post-Communist era. In Ukraine this has led to the landslide presidential victory of Volodymyr Zelensky, a candidate with no known policies whose nearest approach to political experience has been acting the part of a worthy president in a television series. To be known only for his benign image as a comedian and as an actor – and, accordingly, someone on whom voters could project their hopes and expectations – turned out to be a great advantage compared with political incumbency, since Petro Poroshenko, seeking re-election, could be blamed for the manifold problems Ukraine was unsuccessfully grappling with. 

The ticket that Zelensky won on was essentially one of change and overcoming corruption...

...and it is important to say that in Ukraine’s case, the population has not – at least at this stage – sought a ‘strong leader’. Elsewhere, the attraction of a ‘strongman’ who combines an appeal to traditional values and nationalist sentiments with the promise of imposition of order, including curtailment of freedoms and of democratic rights and institutions which had existed in the earlier post-Communist years, has been evident. Russia especially, Hungary and Poland are among the cases in point.

Is the recurrence of calls for ‘strong leadership’ as old as human history?

The notion of calls for ‘strong leadership’ being as old as human history ignores the fact that for the greater part of recorded human history political leadership was authoritarian rulership, whether the ruler was called a king, emperor, tsar, khan, warlord or chief. The wishes of the ruled had little or no bearing on the kind of government imposed. Democracy is quite a recent phenomenon, ancient Greece notwithstanding. Even in the heyday of Athenian ‘democracy’, only a fifth of the population at most were granted the rights of citizens.

For the greatest expanse of human history, the role of ‘the people’ was not to make demands on their rulers but to show them unquestioning loyalty and obedience. What is also true is that while the rule of a single authoritarian ruler varied in severity from case to case, it was generally preferable to anarchy and civil war. If the choice is between a war of all against all within a given territory and an authoritarian ruler capable of maintaining some kind of order, the latter is a lesser evil. But if today the choice is between authoritarian ‘strongman’ rule, on the one hand, and democratically accountable government, on the other, the latter is infinitely preferable and the case for it and against authoritarianism should be argued vigorously.

To quote the title of your book: Why is the ‘strong leader’ a myth?

I have argued against the tendency to equate a ‘strong leader’ with a successful leader. If, of course, we use the term, ‘strong leader’ as a synonym for good leader, then we can all be in favour of strong leaders. But that is to render the term meaningless. By a strong leader, I mean one who maximises his or her power vis-à-vis colleagues, political party and governmental institutions and who insists on taking all the biggest decisions. There is a widespread disposition to admire that kind of leader and to regard as ‘weak’ a leader who does not claim the last word on everything and who operates as captain of a team rather than as master of the government.

What sets a successful leader apart?

There are many qualities often found in a successful leader that are much more desirable than an insistence on one-person dominance and power maximisation. They include integrity, intelligence, collegiality, shrewd judgement, a questioning mind, willingness to seek contrary views, flexibility, good memory, courage, empathy and immense energy. Among contemporary political leaders, it would be fair to say that Angela Merkel has as valid a claim as any to have embodied those desiderata, and her political longevity within a vibrant democracy is good reason to regard her as having been an outstandingly successful leader.

What role did political parties and their leaders play in bringing about the current stalemate and paralysis of British politics?

Brexit was and is clearly a huge issue with many ramifications – including the Irish question and the Scottish question and the implications for the preservation of a UK within its present boundaries – which were given scant attention in the campaign and which simply could not be settled by an In-or-Out popular vote. The stalemate that has followed the 2016 referendum results from the almost impossible task of reconciling parliamentary democracy with plebiscitary democracy.

Theresa May proceeded to make a series of miscalculations which were almost as great a failure of leadership as David Cameron’s. She was certain that she could lead the Conservative Party to a much larger majority than it already enjoyed, given her belief in the electoral vulnerability of Labour now that it was led by Jeremy Corbyn, who had spent a lifetime as a left-wing backbench rebel and not a day as even a junior minister. She therefore chose to fight an unnecessary general election and turned a government with a small but workable majority into one without a majority which then proceeded to spend even more time negotiating with itself and its Democratic Unionist Party conditional ally than with the EU.

Should we distinguish political leadership from political power?

Certainly. Much of the time when we are talking about political leadership, we are discussing power-holders, simply because the offices they hold give them greater opportunities to affect political outcomes. But when another politician goes along with a decision of a prime minister, about which he harbours doubts, because he hopes for promotion within the government or, failing that, to avoid demotion, this tells us nothing about the leadership qualities of the prime minister, merely something about the powers of appointment attached to the office.

Could you give an example of political leadership that is not linked to the political power of office-holders?

A purer form of political leadership is when someone with no patronage to bestow relies on the power of persuasion and the power of example to lead others into a political movement or, at least, to rouse them from apathy or a sense of hopelessness. For contemporary examples of outstanding political leadership, we need look no further than the impact made by two very young women, Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg. Yousafzai was aged fifteen when, as a campaigner for girls’ education in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, she was shot in the head by the Taliban in 2012 and almost killed. After numerous medical operations, she carried on campaigning, as well as studying, currently at the University of Oxford. She went to Nigeria in 2014 to seek the release of girls from a predominantly Christian school who had been kidnapped by the radical Islamist terrorist group, Boko Haram. More recently, she has campaigned against the practice of female genital mutilation practised by some of her fellow-Muslims. At the age of seventeen, she became the youngest-ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Comparable moral courage, articulateness and determination to effect change has been shown by the sixteen-year-old Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, who launched global student protests against man-made climate change and has pushed the issue far higher up the political agenda, even in Brexit-obsessed Britain. She chided politicians for turning ‘this into a question of what methods the protesters use’ when it is ‘about the fact that we face an existential crisis’. On successive days in Easter week (travelling everywhere by train), she addressed the European parliament in Strasbourg, the Pope in the Vatican, the Italian Senate, a crowd of 25,000 people in Rome, a vast crowd in London, and British party leaders and senior ministers. The former leader of the Green Party in the UK and prominent Member of Parliament Caroline Lucas noted that, as a result of the stimulus provided by Thunberg, party leaders, including Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, had ‘agreed to start regular cross-party meetings on climate policy, to open consultations with youth climate activists and to have an independent body assess whether party manifestoes were in line with the Paris Agreement’.

That is inspirational political leadership, pure and simple, from another thoroughly deserving schoolgirl candidate to become a Nobel Laureate. And it is clear that Malala Yousafzai and Greta Thunberg value prizes only to the extent that they signify concrete progress on tackling the issues they care deeply about.


Gabriele Woidelko
Head of Department History and Politics
+49 • 40 • 80 81 92 - 160
Twitter @Woidelko

Twitter @KoerberGP

Florian Bigge
Programme Manager
Körber History Forum

+49 • 40 • 80 81 92 - 180

Bernd Vogenbeck
Programme Manager
eCommemoration; Körber History Forum

+49 • 40 • 80 81 92 - 235