6.3.4 Political Leaders

Political leaders – Prime Ministers, Presidents, and leaders of political parties – 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; they personify the government or party in the eyes of the people; and national leaders represent their countries in international affairs.  A leader’s character affects responses to issues that arise: their persuasiveness, how decisive they are, and whether they can empathise with those they govern, for example.  Their performance profoundly affects the legitimacy of the political system.

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

They are constrained by their declared ideology and policies which they have already 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.

Dictators come to power by being able to inspire, or at least control, their followers.  This does not necessarily mean that they would run a country in the interests of all the people.  The characteristics of a person who can seize power are aggression and self-confidence, which do not align with the need to listen to what the people want or, in the face of declining popularity, with the need to gracefully hand over power to someone else.

Most of the time, managerial efficiency is the most important factor in running a country well – but elections tend to be won by politicians with charisma rather than those with managerial skills.  And so-called ‘technocratic’ leaders coming from outside politics don’t always have political legitimacy, as discussed in an article Mario Draghi: is Italy’s addiction to technocratic leaders a cause for concern?

“…the rise of technocrats has gone hand in hand with a reduced presence of ministers who have a record of achievements proving their political skills, whose policy preferences are known and whose ability to connect with their constituents has been tested in elections, which would make them more democratically accountable.”

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:

The performance of a leadership team depends upon how it is managed.  Some leaders choose the most talented people available and harness their strengths to deliver a programme, but others select team members merely for their personal loyalty (6.3.4.1).

Strong personalities with defined policy aims, like Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, may become overly self-confident and stop listening to anyone else: ‘personality politics’ (6.3.4.2).  Flaws in the character of a dominant leader have a big impact on how well their team serves the population.

An important safeguard against an over-dominant leader is to limit terms of office (6.3.4.3).

Leaders need to be popular to win and retain power – but if their only concern is holding power, like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, they form policy that is solely based upon what is popular at the time (6.3.4.4).   Their decisions are taken without due care for future consequences.

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This is a current page, updated since publication of Patterns of Power Edition 3a.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/634a.htm