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The myth of leadership

By John Burnheim - posted Tuesday, 16 July 2013

One thing is clear from the commentary and the polls on the restoration of Rudd to the prime ministership is that Australians are sold on the myth of leadership. Julia Gillard did not succeed in projecting herself as a leader. Kevin Rudd did. It is a matter of expectations.

In her Quarterly Essay no 46 (2012), Great Expectations, Laura Tingle concludes by referring to the great explorer Magellan and his extraordinary feat of inspiring his crew to go on in the face of horrific dangers. "A little like Magellan, we have reached the end of the known world in our political discussion of the past couple of decades….but we lack a captain with the skills to persuade us that they know the way." (p64) Her diagnosis of our condition is typical.

The need for a leader seems deeply entrenched in most cultures, especially those that depend on a centralised authority in any domain of human activity. Only societies, like those of Australian Aboriginal peoples, in which power is thoroughly decentralised and embodied in custom rather than authoritative decisions, seem to escape it. The Leader is not just a deputed decision-maker or hired organiser. He, rarely she, provides a living focus of identity for the community, at least in certain of its dimensions, notably military, political and collectively expressive, as commander, wielder of power and source of an inspiration in whose projections we share.


The power of leaders is real, and in certain contexts indispensible. Where rapid response is the paramount necessity, in venturing into uncharted terrain and in some kinds of education, our willingness to trust the leader is inevitably a gamble, but the alternative is almost certain failure. But the need to take the gamble is easily mythologised. The seductions of heroics, of decisiveness, of escape from the ordinary and of visions of Promised Lands can never be expunged from our political, religious and aesthetic imagination. The problem is to avoid their dominating our collective imagery, as the memory of the horrors of totalitarian leadership fades. In many ways, our very consciousness of the diversity and complexity of possible ways of living, of ways of thinking and relating to each other becomes a reason for feeling that only a Leader can bring effective decision out of the chaos of conflicting considerations, making manifest the unity to which we aspire.

The alternatives to Leadership, legal process, voting, negotiation, free discussion, tolerance of diversity of ends and means and respect for tradition, are rarely seen as matching its claims to dynamic and effective achievement. Their effects are diffuse and unclear, their methods complex and unglamorous. The demands they make on us often seem petty and irksome, miring us in a swamp of difficulties, while the strong, unequivocal demands of the Leader free us from ineffectual struggle and deliver tangible results. The call for active participation in decision-making is hollow. We usually prefer to confine ourselves to supporting a team rather than venture on to the playing field.

Living in a consumerist society, where our pervasive concerns are our incomes and the things we can buy, rather than any personal productive activity, we are easily seduced by the idea that we can buy leadership with our votes, oblivious of the inevitable homogenization that party system produces in what is on offer. The effect is clearly analogous to the way in which commercial competition tends to monopoly, standardization of products and the centrality of advertising. Minor differences are "breakthroughs", brand identity becomes a matter of "image" rather than substance. The process is not completely deceptive. Products are improved and made more affordable, new technologies exploited and significant economies of scale are achieved in most fields of production and distribution. At the same time, new forms of deception and exploitation are invented in the ceaseless search for unearned advantage, giving rise to recurrent systemic crises. In politics, likewise, the techniques of administration and implementation are continually refined. Pressures to produce sound results cannot be evaded by "spin" as image fades into staleness and what was sold as leading becomes obsolescent.

As each leader's limitations are revealed, consumers prepare to switch their allegiance according to the latest fad, looking for a new leadership. Does the illusion matter? Isn't it just life? We regularly expect too much and are as regularly disappointed. But the disappointment with politicpans is usually excessive. We invite them to promise what they cannot deliver. We need to examine our expectations, not just to avoid disappointment, but to draw the right conclusions about its causes and remedies.

The role of modern politicians is to manage the very complex range of activities that have come to be assigned to the state. That involves taking into account the many-faceted and often conflicting considerations that are involved in these diverse enterprises. There is no specific single goal. The state is quite unlike a specialised commercial enterprise, where it all comes down to the bottom line. The government is charged with achieving a sort of ecological balance between a lot of diverse but interdependent organisms and the climate in which they strive to survive and flourish. The task is nothing like that of the navigator trying to circle the globe, except in wartime where all other considerations are subordinate to victory. It is not like a car manufacturer, seeking to dominate a niche in the market, where there are unequivocal criteria of success. There is no right balance between most of the conflicting demands of the huge range of needs that states are called on to service or regulate. There are always incremental advantages of divers kinds in devoting more resources to health rather than education and so on, which will be assessed differently by different people.

Unfortunately, we almost inevitably think of these conflicts of interest as being a matter of conflicts between different groups of people, defined by social classes, geographical locations, commercial sectors, cultures, religions, traditions and age groups. But in most cases we all find ourselves torn between conflicting considerations related to such differences. If we are realistic, we must be prepared to follow up the ways in which the interests that concern us most nearly depend on the sound operations of other interests. Neither the workers in a capitalist enterprise nor the owners are likely to prosper if each group pursues its short-term interests single-mindedly at the expense of the other. The resolution of such conflicts of interest depends on a process and an ethos of negotiation in which each party places itself in the position of the other, attempting to offer as much as possible to it at least cost to itself. Where negotiation fails the fall back is arbitration, and it is here that a certain kind of leadership is required. Not the leadership of the general or the entrepreneur, but the capacity to produce decisions that can be "sold" to each party as at least preferable to any realistic alternative.


Monarchical and dictatorial regimes used to claim that the monarch, standing above all sectional interests, uniquely aware of the good of the whole community, could arrive at such decisions more effectively than any negotiating process. As history amply illustrates, in fact monarchs and dictators prioritized their own power, dynastic ambitions and the interests of those on whose support they happened most to depend.

Democracy, conceived as handing over dictatorial power to "the People" fared no better, even when it avoided falling back into dictatorship. Whatever organisation won power identified itself as the bearer of the interests of the people, to which all other interests must be subordinated. At the very least winners claimed to have a "mandate" to pursue the interests it claimed to represent without having to compromise with their adversaries. No doubt, there are circumstances where systemic changes are called for and where important existing assumptions need to be challenged. In such cases a leader who can articulate clearly and convincingly what needs to be done and commands the support of a team who clearly share the same direction is very important. But such a role in a democracy must grow out of a matrix of public discussion and claim to represent its conclusions. A democratic politician can never claim to be an authoritative voice, a prophet or Messiah, much less a pope!

A standard criticism of democracy as a regime of negotiations is that it leads to a choice between Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee, in much the same way that mass markets lead to a choice between products that are only superficially distinguishable, except by their packaging. The living embodiment of great hopes, the glory and the transcendent identity of the nation for which people have laid down their lives, is lost in a swamp of petty deals between conflicting interests. That is, at least for the mythmaker and the devotee in all of us, a loss that must be acknowledged. But, to paraphrase Brecht, don't pity the nation that lacks heroes, but the nation that has need of heroes. Instead we can take pride in the immensely diverse riches that the collective procedures of democratic negotiation have cultivated or permitted to flourish.

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About the Author

John Burnheim is a former professor of General Philosophy at the University of Sydney, Australia.

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