6.3.4 Political Leaders

Political leaders – Prime Ministers, Presidents, and party leaders – are the face of their teams and are responsible for their performance.

The performance of a leader determines the effectiveness of a team.  Leaders carry more responsibility than other politicians:

●  They are accountable for their team’s performance.

●  They choose who will hold senior positions.

●  They coordinate the way in which problems are addressed.

●  They set the tone for behaviour of party members.

●  National leaders represent their countries in international affairs.

A leader’s character affects responses to issues that arise.  Leaders need to be persuasive, decisive, and be able to empathise with those they govern.  Their performance profoundly affects government legitimacy.

The Presidential Historians Survey lists 10 “individual leadership characteristics” for assessing the performance of American presidents: “public persuasion, crisis leadership, economic management, moral authority, international relations, administrative skills, relations with Congress, vision/setting an agenda, [pursuit of] equal justice for all and performance within the context of the times”.  The survey, which attaches equal weighting to each characteristic, is carried out annually by a growing panel of historians.  The top four presidents have consistently been identified as: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt – usually in that order.  Donald Trump came 4th from bottom in the 2021 survey.

There are constraints within which political leaders must operate when they are in office:

●  They are obliged to comply with the country’s constitution, even if it is unwritten (5.2.3). Failure to do so Is a threat to the political system, so a constitution includes processes for removing non-compliant leaders.  In some countries a non-executive president or constitutional monarch might have a role to play.

●  Leaders are constrained by their declared political ideology and the policies which they have committed to. They need to provide very good reasons if they wish to deviate from what they have said previously.

●  They can be affected by external circumstances beyond their control – although good leaders should be able to explain this to the people and would be able to show how they had responded as well as possible. Winston Churchill for example, with his impassioned speeches, was ideally suited to maintaining public morale during the Second World War.

●  They must take account of the arithmetic of party politics, as described earlier (6.2.6). Some leaders may have to negotiate with the leaders of other parties if they are in a coalition or if they face resistance from within their own party.  Leaders with a big parliamentary majority can act more freely.

Some political leaders try to govern well, but others merely want to gain and retain power for themselves.  The following sub-sections examine some of the issues that arise from different styles of leadership:

●  Leadership style is very important ( The performance of a leadership team depends upon how it is managed.  Some leaders choose the most talented people available and harness their strengths.  Others are more dictatorial, like Vladimir Putin, selecting team members mainly for their personal loyalty.

●  Strong personalities like Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair might be good at driving a programme of change, but they can become overly self-confident and fail to listen to anyone else. This pattern is referred to in this book as ‘personality politics’ (  Flaws in the character of a dominant leader, and the irrationality of supporting a personality cult figure like Donald Trump, have a big impact on how well a political team serves the population.

●  Fixed limits to tenure are a safeguard against a tendency of strong personalities to stay beyond the time when they best serve the country ( Democracies automatically provide limits, unless those are overridden.

●  The need for a popular leader is common to both democracies and authoritarian systems: to attract support and to maintain stability ( An unpopular leader must be replaced.  Leaders whose only aim is popularity, though, are unlikely to make sound decisions or steer a consistent political course.

●  The leader selection process is crucial ( It affects what sort of person becomes a leader and whether they have the support of their leadership teams and the population.  Directly elected presidents are not always chosen for positive reasons.  And a party leader’s colleagues are better able to choose their leader than party members whose views are unlikely to be representative of the wider electorate.



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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/634c.htm