“To hold on to power successfully, a leader must not mind losing it”

Of Leaders and Hubris

 — Jonathan Powell

Confronted by the claims that many Libyans had had enough of him, Colonel Gaddafi, incredulous and impatient, retorted, “all my people are with me, they love me all. They will die to protect me, my people”. There are no two ways about it. Clearly, the man is as insane and delusional as he is a wicked.

However, there is a here a trait or flaw, albeit deeply exaggerated in Gaddafi, which will not be uncommon to too many leaders. Louis XVI’s entry in his journal on the fateful 14 of July 1789 consisted simply but tellingly of the one-word entry: “Rien”. The King had made no kills at the hunt on the day, seemingly little concerned with the revolution at his doorstep.

Lest we also forget the famous quip of Harold Wilson – who, incidentally, ought not by any stretch of the imagination be spoken of in the same line as the aforementioned self-serving Colonel or King. But when asked in 1969 about plots against him and the suggestions that he would leave office, Wilson replied, “I know what’s going on. I’m going on.” Or the iron lady, Margaret Thatcher, who a few months before being dispatched by the electorate, mistook angry protests to her passing motorcade near the Place de la Concorde (after her disobliging remarks about the French Declaration of the Rights of Men), for nothing more than enthusiastic fans of hers from across the channel. 

Of course there are always a number and combination of reasons behind the fall of any leader. But perhaps one of the most dramatic ingredients is hubris. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former Chief of Staff, suggests that “what brings down all leaders in the end is hubris, whether in dictatorship or democracy”. That inevitable sense of pride and self-importance that befall persons in power, invariably leading to their being out of touch and overestimating their own competence, capabilities and support.

It is not too difficult to imagine how this comes about. Elevated to the atmospheric heights of power, the leader becomes sealed off from the real world and the stresses and strains of normal life. For one, the leader will usually be surrounded by an army of aides at his beck and call. The leader will also be dependent or made dependent on a close and closed circle of personal emissaries, who do their best to shield him from contact with the outside world. If he is actually out, the leader is presumably driven in a motorcade, unforgiving to the traffic on its path.  Or, simply, he is flown in lush comfort to his destination. If out to meet the masses, he is only revealed to the fickle and adoring crowds, not the equally fickle but less inclined mobs. The leader then becomes used to people competing for his favour, attention, if not a mere handshake.

Basking in hubris, with his perceptions twisted, the leader is led to believe falsely that he is loved and needed by all and can defer his inescapable political mortality.

There are of course countries that have term limits built in their Constitutions. In the United States, for instance, there is a forced renewal at most every eight years. Reminded every day of the very temporary nature of their positions, leaders become more focused on what they had set out to achieve, setting themselves specific milestones, with an eye constantly on their ultimate legacy. There are other leaders, like Jose Maria Aznar, Prime Minister of Spain from 1996 to 2004, who had at the very outset pledged to serve only two terms, although the Spanish Constitution does not set any limits.

But of course, there are those who seek to go on indefinitely. Jonathan Powell muses that “even those leaders who know that they should really depart can always find a reason to stay just another six months or one more year to sort out some problem or the other”. Letting go is made considerably harder if the leaders have nothing but politics in their lives. What happens then is that they miscalculate their welcome in office and are eventually chased off, often in dramatic, unforgiving, if not ungrateful circumstances. Once ousted, there are many that will linger on trying to make life difficult to the new faces in office.

Perhaps then, as Powell suggests, Tony Blair’s departure from office can serve as a contrast to the hubristic leader. Mr Blair left to glorifying tributes and a standing ovation from friends and foes in the House of Commons. Powell reveals that Blair had started talking about what he might do after office as early as 2001, four years after being elected on a landslide majority. Quite simply, the infinitely more grounded Blair had other things he wanted to do in life. In June 2002, he had then advised his close circle that he would look to stand down at the next election.

Blair also left with Gordon Brown snapping at his heels – which suggests that it will also be useful at some stage to consider the manner of leaving in as much as the issue of succession. But for now, it is rather telling that on publicly announcing his departure in May 2007, Prime Minister Blair received a call from the Colonel himself. To Blair’s simple answer that he had only intended to serve as long as he did, Colonel Gaddafi’s incredulously responded, “so you’re not going to tell me the real reasons then”. 

Powell’s paraphrasing of Machiavelli is apt, relevant for leaders in Libya, England, locally or outside the political setting, “to hold on to power successfully, a leader must not mind losing it.”

By Vimalen Reddi

* Published in print edition on 3 March 2011

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