The ‘strong leader’ fallacy

Posted on: May 29, 2018 at 9:53 am, in

There is a widely held perception that strong leaders who talk tough and get their way, who dominate government colleagues and the political party to which they belong, and who make the big decisions all by themselves are the most successful and effective leaders. In a recent cover story in Time magazine, author Ian Bremmer may have sneeringly identified such leaders when he wrote that “we are in the strongman era” and cited Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte as examples of the most prominent “strongmen” of the century.

While the term “strong leaders” may be interpreted in many ways, it is usually taken to mean those leaders who concentrate a lot of power in their hands and will freely use that power to get what they want. Admirers of President Duterte believe he is exactly the kind of strong leader that we need in order to move projects forward. They may be right. Mr. Duterte has shown on many occasions that indeed he can make things happen through the use of brutal power. In the words of Inquirer columnist Randy David, Mr. Duterte’s approach to power is based on “the methodical use of the coercive power of the state in order to intimidate dissenters, critics, skeptics, deviants, and noncooperative individuals who, in his perception, are not taking him seriously.”

Be that as it may, in his book “The Myth of the Strong Leader,” Oxford University professor Dr. Archie Brown debunks the notion that the more a leader dominates his political party and Cabinet, and arbitrarily makes the big decisions, the greater he is as a leader. Brown argues that while some strong leaders emerge more positively than negatively, “power amassed by an
individual leader paves the way for significant errors at best and disaster and massive bloodshed at worst.”


Of course there is general agreement in many democratic countries that a “strong leader” is a good thing. No one ever says, “What we need is a weak leader.” Yet the simple weak-strong dichotomy is a very limited way of gauging individual leaders. There are other more desirable qualities of political leadership besides pure strength, which better describes weightlifters and long-distance runners. Such qualities include honesty, modesty, moral uprightness, intelligence, articulateness, willingness to seek disparate views, flexibility, boundless energy, courage and vision. We don’t expect a leader to possess all these qualities but they are part of the essential requirements of an effective leader.

And this has to be emphasized. Brown said: “Effective government is necessary everywhere, but due process matters. When corners are cut because one leader is sure he knows best, problems will follow, and they can be on a disastrous scale. Due process means involving all the senior politicians with relevant departmental
responsibilities in the decision process. It also means that the actions of government should be in conformity with the rule of law, and the government should be accountable to Congress and the people.”

Leadership is often reduced to a simple dichotomy: the strong versus the weak. Though we tend to dismiss consultative styles of leadership as weak, it is often the most cooperative leaders who have the greatest impact.

Brown cited President Harry Truman as a real “strong leader.” In contrast to self-styled “strong” leaders who seek to achieve their goals through intimidation and dominance, Truman was an instinctively consultative president, delegating significant authority to his colleagues — especially his two secretaries of state, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. Brown wrote it was characteristic of Truman’s style that the most outstanding foreign policy achievement of his presidency is known as the Marshall Plan, not the Truman Plan. Truman was modest not only about his own status, but about the powers of the presidency itself. While many US presidents felt the need to exaggerate their powers, Truman said: “I sit here all day trying to persuade people to do the things they ought to do without my persuading them. That’s all what the powers of the president amount to.”

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Charlie A. Agatep is chair and CEO of Grupo Agatep.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer last May 29, 2018.