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Great leaders - born or made?

By Souchou Yao - posted Wednesday, 3 January 2007

In Chinese society, it is a cultural ideal that leadership should be defined by “moral authority”. It is a cultural ideal that Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and the old men of the Chinese Communist Party are quick to exploit. The more conventional, less spectacular route to leadership is by the cultural huckstering Chinese called “buying face”.

To “buy face” those aspiring to power give money and gifts to retirement homes, orphanages, hospitals and so on. It is a highly public and ritualised affair especially, for example, during Chinese New Year when, with the media in tow, there is proof of the generosity and moral character of the donor.

There are, however, serious limitations to this mode of leadership. Once you depend on money to give you influence, more face-buying money will have to be spent. There is no letting up.


Once you forget to make your visit to the orphanage and have your pictures taken by the press, then you find yourself in the state of anxiety that Julia Roberts must feel when she discovers her face is not on latest magazine covers.

Leadership by moral authority is much more influential and enduring by comparison. Leadership is about the ability to guide, direct or influence people, and for that he or she has to “lead”, to march in front of the crowd on the way to somewhere better - or worse.

For that, a leader often has to get ahead of the people, public opinion and accepted social trends.

Perhaps for this reason, democratic societies are ambivalent towards their political leaders. Yes, we will follow, but political leaders need to explain their agendas and whether the new direction is for the good of the country. And if we disagree, we will express our disapproval or unhappiness in the opinion poll and the ballot boxes.

Given these constraints, political leaders in a democratic society must strive to be “popular”. And to achieve this there is a whole machinery in place: the public relations hack; media advisers; image makers; and campaign managers - seemingly neutral, professionals whose work is to convince the public that the leader in question is on their side, tirelessly working for their interests and prosperity.

When you think about it, however, a leader eager for public acceptance, who explains every new initiative, may not necessarily be popular. He or she may come across as being “democratic”, but also, just as easily, as being weak, lacking resolve and pandering to public opinion. Some might say he or she lacks “leadership qualities”.


Consider the ex-British Prime Minister, Baroness Margaret Thatcher: whether you agree with her politics and the Falklands war or not, you would have to concede that she had tons of leadership quality.

The resolute “Iron Lady” galvanised the nation after years of feeble Labour rule, a recession and high unemployment. The Falklands was a “nice little war” - a low impact, short endurance conflict - in military-speak - that recalled the good old days of Empire and naval glory.

She was no ditherer. The domineering, agenda-setting leadership won her huge popularity and three consecutive terms as prime minister between 1979 and 1990.

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About the Author

Yao Souchou teaches anthropology at The University of Sydney with a focus on the Chinese Diaspora in South East Asia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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