Thursday, 3 March 2022

Leadership and greatness


There are some who believe that human history is largely shaped by the actions of a few ‘great men’, where ‘great’ refers to their influence on events rather than being a qualitative description. In this context, ‘great’ doesn’t preclude being utterly evil; indeed, the two often go together. Others argue that the so-called ‘great men’ were merely products of the social environment at the time, and that the real mover of history is more to do with social forces, or perhaps more accurately the clashes between differing social forces. It’s an interesting debate, but largely academic. Since we can’t run history twice to compare, we can never know, for instance, whether assassinating Hitler in 1938 would have completely changed history or simply led to another individual fulfilling a very similar role.

We do know – because he’s told us – that Boris Johnson is very much a supporter of the ‘great man’ theory of history. According to him, one such ‘great man’, Churchill, single-handedly saved our entire civilisation. It meshes with the British popular memory (a euphemism for fable and myth in this context) of how ‘the’ war was fought and won. To understand exactly how he claims this to have worked, I’d probably need to read his book, but given the reviews that’s not a pain I’m willing to endure. Suffice it to say that, in the real version of history, the most influential of all the armies on the battlefield – and the one suffering the greatest losses – was the Soviet Red Army, most of whose conscripts had probably never heard of Churchill, let alone been inspired by him. It’s just possible that fear of another ‘great man’ (Stalin) might have had a greater influence on them. That, and the fact that they were largely fighting, initially at least, on their own territory rather than that of someone else. Defence of the homeland and family will always feel more real in those circumstances.

In itself, Johnson’s belief is relatively harmless; writing unreadable and historically inaccurate (according to the reviews) books and believing that which is inherently unprovable at least makes a change from believing, or pretending to believe, the impossible. The bigger problem is that he believes himself to be one such ‘great man’, and in terms of the old saying “some are born to greatness, others have greatness thrust upon them”, he firmly believes himself to be in the former camp. It follows that everything he does is axiomatically ‘great’, and the country he leads is equally axiomatically ‘great’ and ‘world-leading’ in everything it does. That perspective helps to explain his dismay, nay outrage, when others challenge his actions and refuse to take him at his own self-evaluation. Great men don’t need mere facts, rhetoric is enough.

It's educational to compare him with the current president of Ukraine. Here is a man who doesn’t seem to have made any claims to be great, and who seems to have ended up where he is not as the result of his own self-belief that he should be king of the world, but more by accident as a result of life imitating art in the form of his comedy show. There is little by way of self-aggrandisement or boastfulness, there doesn’t appear to be any flowery language (although like most of us, I’ve only ever heard him in translation, so it’s hard to be certain), he manages without the cod embellishment of referring to classical tales and texts, and speaks in a direct and apparently honest way showing – rather than just talking about – immense courage and determination. Definitely a case of having greatness thrust upon him, and for all the doubts that many Ukrainians had about him prior to the start of the war, he has turned out to be the right man at the right time.

Life has taught me not to place too much trust in heroes – all too often they turn out, eventually, to have feet of clay. But I surely can’t be the only one wondering if we might not be better off with a self-effacing leader who got there by accident rather than an arrogant narcissist who got there by deploying dishonesty on a grand scale, who believes that rhetorical flourishes count for more than actions and that promises made are valid only until the end of the sentence making them.


Arthur Owen,Caerdydd said...

Indeed we,also,might have a self effacing leader,who did not get there by accident but saw himself as a safe pair of hands stopgap until events intervened.Obviously I an not comparing Mr Drakeford's position to President Zelensky's but all the same.

dafis said...

Blobby Boris may support some sort of "great man" theory and its attendant myths but he is not and will never be the kind of "great man" that he idolises. It reminds me of ill prepared, out of shape kids who had to be Bobby Charlton or some other big name of the time when we rolled up jumpers or positioned kit bags to form goals when we had impromptu games of football on a local paddock. Now that is fine for a primary school kid or someone in his early teens but when a man in his 50's still carries on like that and gets tolerated by the voting public something is seriously wrong.