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 constraints within which 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.
● They are constrained by their declared political ideology and the 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.
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, but others select team members merely for their personal loyalty (126.96.36.199).
● 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: ‘personality politics’ (188.8.131.52). Flaws in the character of a dominant leader have a big impact on how well a political team serves the population.
● An important safeguard against an over-dominant leader is to limit terms of office (184.108.40.206).
● The fortunes of a political party in a democracy are tied to the popularity of its leader (220.127.116.11), so an unpopular leader must be replaced. Leaders whose only goal is to seek power, though, are unlikely to steer a consistent political course.
● The method of selection affects what sort of person becomes a leader: whether they are assertive, representative of the population, have managerial skills, and are electable (18.104.22.168).
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/edition04/634a.htm