Searching for Leadership
Garry Wills' Certain Trumpets
Better than you might expect. “Leadership” as a topic has been left bleeding by the side of the road by gangs of business self-helpers and Fourth of July speech writers. It isn’t that there are things left unsaid; as most writers on leadership say nothing, it’s that nothing much has been said yet.
Reviewed: Certain Trumpets: The Nature of Leadership by Garry Wills, Simon & Schuster, 1995
The lament is general: We boast spokesmen and heroes, gurus and saviors, celebrities and surrogates of a dozen kinds. We have elected representatives whose diligence shames their predecessors. But life in the U.S.—especially political life—offers us no real leaders.
What does leadership require? What conditions nurture it, and what kinds of personalities are capable of it? The literature on leadership is sizable but unsatisfying. The newest addition to the shelf is Certain Trumpets: The Call of Leaders by Garry Wills. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Northwestern University instructor offers up profiles of 16 leaders and their antitypes drawn from politics, the arts, religion, business, philosophy and other realms.
If Certain Trumpets is not the last word on the subject, it does nicely as the first, at least according to The Economist. That journal likened the book to "a series of uplifting lectures for sophomores." This may render a book unsuitable for grownups in Great Britain, but not in America. Here, the only difference between the average voter and the average college sophomore is that the sophomore's ignorance of American government pains only his instructor, while that of the voter is inflicted on his fellow citizens.
Leadership is a phenomenon of virtually all social endeavors. As Wills notes, leaders are as diverse in their motivations and styles as in their ambitions. One man leads by courage, another by moral example, a third by eloquent exhortation, a fourth by the canny manipulation of his opponents. Influence is not leadership. (Chicago magnate Potter Palmer was influential in his realm, but his wife. Bertha Honore Palmer, was a leader in hers.) Neither is coercion or love or admiration, although all of those things can animate the relationship between leaders and the led. Pressed for a brief definition, we are reduced to description: A leader is one who leads.
The student of leadership could find slimmer archives than Illinois' on the subject. The state has been home to Black Hawk and U. S. Grant, Mother Jones and John L. Lewis, Jane Addams and Frances Willard, a tentful of seers and prophets, and of course Lincoln. That such men and women so often led in different directions perhaps explains why Illinois is constantly in motion yet never seems to get anywhere.
One person's leader is another person's charlatan, however, and Wills exposes two of Illinois' famous sons. As an antitype of the electoral leader he chooses former governor Adlai Stevenson, whom Wills dismisses as a dilettante and ladies' man. Stephen A. Douglas also appears, the antitype of a radical leader who failed to realize the limits of compromise.
Leadership is a problem in political systems that invest sovereign authority in The People. Mayors and congressmen and presidents are put in office to do the electorate's bidding; a professional ruling class of the sort that has captured Congress thus offends democratic proprieties. Thus the yearning for another Ike in the form of a Ross Perot or a Colin Powell—a leader who is not merely nonpartisan but nonpolitical.
What virtues do such heroes offer us, apart from their apparent unwillingness to be a leader? Boldness is a trait that becomes a leader, says Wills. But while boldness may win the day on the battlefield or the stage, it is seldom rewarded in a democratic republic. Boldness scares the voters and annoys the bureaucrats and gives the bond markets the jitters. Democratic leaders are more likely to be effective as consensus builders, men and women who boldly go where everyone has gone before.
Reading between the whines, we may conclude that many people perceive the failures of today's system in terms of the human flaws of the leaders who presume to direct it. Greed vexes many more voters than does gridlock. Yet the expectation of virtue in a leader—as distinct from the virtues of leadership—is not so much misplaced as irrelevant. Wills, for example, rejects the noble Pericles as a model democratic leader; a true leader is not the superior human who is indulged by crowds but one who, by acting on behalf of the crowd, makes himself superior.
Leaders are shaped by their times, of course, but they also shape them in turn. The mayoralty of Harold Washington would have been impossible, whatever his talents as a leader, had not Chicago's changing electoral demographics (as well as its unchanging Irish factionalism) favored a black candidate. But being the black candidate in a city suddenly aware of the potential of black political power transformed the reluctant Washington into the leader of a crusade.
Leading was a process of becoming for Washington; realizing his followers' aspirations gave focus to his own. At the same time, Washington was no mere pawn of history. That became clear upon his death, as other blacks who were heir to the same coalition frittered away the majority that had rallied behind him.
Paramount among the democratic leader's virtues is his commitment to the goals of his followers. In what is perhaps Wills' most telling insight, the democratic leader is neither the blind servant of his followers nor their autocratic master. Rather, the leader mobilizes followers toward goals that both agree upon. The leader leads, the followers inspire, and each informs the other. The leader differs in this from the representative, who may be said—sophomore readers may wish to write this down—to reflect his constituents' views while the leader reflects on them.
Understanding one's followers—"understanding" as in "comprehending," not as in "sympathizing with"—thus is an essential trait in a leader. Lincoln's many years in workaday Springfield, where the issues of union and slavery were argued not only in the press but in his parlor, were indispensable preparation for the Civil War White House.
In the opinion of crotchety voters, many of today's would be leaders fail this test. The complaint that elected officials are "out of touch" with most Americans certainly is plausible as applied to the federal establishment, whose members are overwhelmingly affluent professional males. As for the Democrats, they didn't hear the murmurings of dissent from liberal orthodoxy in part (writes Nicholas von Hoffman in the Washington Post) because "focus-grouping" has replaced conversation with the party's leaders at city ward organizations and union halls.
Alas, Americans are drifting out of touch with each other as well. The U.S. polity is atomized, isolated, segregated by race, sex, age and income. What we may have is not a crisis of leadership but a crisis for leadership. To achieve consensus in so fractious an environment, political goals must be reduced to a weak tea of Fourth of July platitudes ("family values" is one) that are so vague that they cause confusion as much as consensus.
But followers must listen to their leaders, too. Wills properly notes (but does not much explore) the crucial role that followership plays in leadership. The question, "What makes a good leader?" gives way to a question perhaps more relevant to our moment. That is, "What makes poor followers?"
Our vices as citizens are well-cataloged. Indifference. Irrationality. Meanness. Exaggerated expectations. Ignorance. For every Angry Man interviewed this election season one heard from a dozen Confused Citizens like the pensioner who told a southern congressional candidate that she didn't care what he did in Washington as long as he didn't let the government get a-hold of her Medicare.
The traits that make us dubious as citizens rather improve us as followers. People often look to leaders—in fact, look for leaders—to do their heavy thinking for them. That is why "trust" and "character" rank so high on our shopping list of a leader's virtues. Ronald Reagan was unarguably a great leader (if not a great president) because he brilliantly rendered issues as anecdote in ways that made annoying complexities not so much comprehensible as irrelevant.
Relinquishing one's citizenly responsibilities to one's leaders is unwise enough to be popular. Indeed, political parties in the U.S. exist in large part to make politics leader-proof. Parties are a stabilizing alternative to what Mencken, writing in 1926, derided as the voters' tendency toward "maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks." When voters leave a major party they usually do so marching behind a leader; post-election polls in the fall of 1994 suggested that disillusioned African Americans would abandon the Democrats "in droves" if Colin Powell ran as a Republican, just as the white working class followed Reagan into the GOP.
The anxious supporters of the still-unfinished revolution of the disgruntled right attached themselves first to George Wallace, later to Ronald Reagan and Ross Perot, and then, half-heartedly, to Bill Clinton. Their failure to dismantle the elites' bastion in Washington by democratic means may leave them open to the blandishments of a new leader ready to use other methods. Machiavelli had a high opinion of the people's sagacity, but even he warned that tyrants may arise from the confusion when a "licentious and turbulent population"—translate as "McGoverniks" or "Newtoids" as you wish—throw off all restraint.
Wills draws a distinction between tyrants and leaders, but voters of the West in this century have not always been so careful of the distinction. In this country, fortunately. Bull Moose, the Progressives, the Dixiecrats, George Wallace's American Party, and the rest were noisy contraptions but they had the pulling power of an engine run on the power of Roman candles. Tyranny was beyond their ability if not always their ambition. (We will exclude the LaRouchites on the authority of Wills, who distinguishes between those who lead their followers and those who hypnotize them.) Indeed, it has been successful major party candidates, emboldened by landslide victories, that have gone on extra-Constitutional adventures in the last 60 years.
Fortunately, the facts of modem life militate against tyrannical leadership as efficiently as they militate against thoughtful leadership. Ronald Heifetz, director of the leadership education project at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and author of Leadership Without Easy Answers, points to our consumer mindset as America's real political ideology. In the U.S., paying most of one's taxes is considered sufficient proof of citizenly virtue. That we no longer call ourselves citizens but taxpayers signifies a profound shift in the way we relate to the state. We see ourselves, in effect, as customers of democracy.
The model for the relationship between voter and representative, between follower and leader, is that of the shopper and the merchant. Small surprise that the first weeks of the most recent Illinois gubernatorial campaign was fixated on commercials that introduced a new and improved Dawn Clark Netsch. No surprise either that, unlike every other Western democracy, the U.S. discards its former presidents as if they were old cars.
The obligation of the customer in such transactions are minimal. Of course, there are no money-back guarantees in politics. Nor are voters in a majority-rule system always right. The expectation of quick service and instant satisfaction nonetheless has left millions of people frustrated and resentful, feeling vaguely defrauded by politicians who claim the privileges of leaders without performing like them.
Democracy thrives in circumstances in which people can dispense with representatives and act as their own leaders — the block, the precinct, the neighborhood, the town meeting, the big city ward. While rates of voter participation in state and national elections continue to slide, there has been a resurgence of something like participatory democracy in local parts of the system. Volunteer anti-crime patrols of the sort organized by neighbors in Joliet, Aurora and Elgin are examples. So are the neighborhood-scale special service areas that are becoming increasingly popular in Chicago as a corrective to indifference and ineptitude at City Hall.
Aristotle in his Politics wrote an early "Contract with Athens" in which he conceded that democratic man's claim to be ruled by none—the wistful vision of the Right—may prove impossible. Political entities the size of today's congressional districts, states and nation make leaders a practical necessity, if an unwelcome one.
Voters clearly have decided that they want politicians leading them the way a horse leads a cart. Wayward leaders are being reined in via referendum and initiative and, yes, lobbyists who wield the whip on the public's behalf. The enthusiasm for term limits and the part-time citizen-legislator would have been endorsed by Aristotle, who thought the citizen ought to rule and be ruled in turn in a system in which appointments to office are brief and which may be held by no man twice. Now as then, the surest way to solve the leadership problem is to render leaders moot. ■