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In Praise of Leaders

March 28, 2014



In Praise of Leaders

Human beings should be immensely proud of what they have achieved in modern civilization. Millions of people live together in relative harmony, reasonable health and with a standard of living which would have astonished a time traveller from two centuries ago: this is a staggering achievement.

In well-run countries, only a tiny proportion of mothers die in childbirth compared to before, and child mortality  has been decimated. Children’s brains are developed by remarkable schooling systems which have progressively raised intelligence levels and people no longer perish with typhoid and cholera because sewage networks remove the ordure from their streets, leading to clean water and good health.

Taxes are collected by clever and sophisticated collection systems in order to pay for these remarkable artifacts of civilization. Clever and conscientious men and women administer these systems, devoting their lives to these most remarkable intricacies of the civilized world.

None of this would be possible without leaders and the civilized world owes a debt of gratitude to these men and women who give up so much of their lives to trying to make sure that this intricate and quite fragile structure of civilization keeps functioning: One only has to look with dismay at the collapse of that human organization in Syria to appreciate quite how vulnerable and delicate civilization is.

Few of us would want to be a leader. Why? – Because it is a very, very stressful and extremely lonely job. They have to make decisions affecting millions of people and so doing inevitably provoke resentment and anger in many. The buck stops with them, and inevitably some decisions they make will be wrong – leadership is a job of sleepless nights and constant threat, psychological and sometimes physical also.

So we need leaders, and we need leaders with the appetite for it.  Leaders need to get satisfaction from wielding power because if they don’t, they will not experience the pharmacological benefits of power:- power is an antidepressant, and anti-anxiety drug . This is because power increases testosterone in people who have the appetite for it, and testosterone increases the brain’s chemical messenger dopamine, leading to increased optimism, strategic thinking and ‘vision’.

A leader with little appetite for power would be a bad leader because he or she would be crushed by the responsibility, the anxiety and the loneliness. This would make a weak leader, and weak leaders can be as big a threat to the fragile web of civilization as dictators can be.

But while we badly need leaders who can withstand the stresses of their job,  over the last thousand years human beings have gradually come to realize that power is a two-edged sword. Yes, it emboldens and de-stresses leaders, even making them smarter. But if unconstrained or too long in duration, it almost inevitably begins to distort brain function leading to impaired judgment, delusions of indispensability, risk-blindness and emotional callousness.

In the last millennium, the genius in human beings has created methods for trying to curb these negative effects of power on leaders – the tools of democracy such as free elections, limited terms in office for leaders, a free press and an independent judiciary. These constraints on power act like antidotes to the venom of excessive individual power.  But even in countries with very strong such constraints, some leaders  nevertheless showed many of the symptoms of “hubris” and the above democratic ‘tools’ had to be used to ensure that power is transferred to a new leader.

And this is psychologically very tough for them because the very qualities we need for them to be effective leaders – high confidence in their own vision  amidst uncertainty and a feeling of selfless embodiment of their nation’s aspirations, for instance – are the very same qualities which make it extremely difficult for leaders to accept that they are not indispensable and that without them, chaos will follow. Politics is a cruel trade and a leader who has devoted every waking hour of his or her life to leading a country must experience almost physical pain at having to relinquish that power: ordinary life will seem very grey and lacking in meaning in contrast. The similarities with the withdrawal symptoms of a drug addict are striking.

So, those of us enjoying the benefits of civilisation with its functioning schools, hospitals and administrations should show respect for our leaders.  But we need to show equal respect and care for the democratic institutions which human genius has crafted to protect our leaders from themselves.

This blog was first published in my column in The Conversation

twitter @irobertson




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