Or, Why the Great Leaders Theory of History is Wrong
Every weekend, I read countless variations on the same theme. “If only we could remove him from power…things would change.”
It’s what I call the Great Leaders Theory of History. That is, Great Leaders make all the difference, are all that really matters in a society, hence, the trick is removing bad ones, to make room for good ones. It’s wrong — because it’s backwards.
Let’s think very clearly and analytically about society, leadership, and human prosperity for a moment.
Great Leaders are made. They don’t just magically appear. By structural and institutional conditions. Bad leaders are an effect before they are a cause — an effect of people who are ready to self-destruct. They don’t arise in a vacuum. Hitler didn’t come to power ex nihilo, from the void — nor did Trump. Just as a demagogue rising in a collapsing, hyperinflationary Germany was on the cards, so too Trump was inevitable.
Why? Because the American social contract is broken. A social contract is unlike a legal contract in one important way. It can be ripped up. In what way is the American social contract broken? In the truest way of all: Americans do not expect — or get — minimally good lives anymore. Their life expectancy, income, savings, and so on, down to nearly every last indicator of well being, are all falling.
What do people whose lives are getting worse do? They rip up the social contracts that are failing them. That is rational. It is what maximizes their (falling) payoffs, rewards which have become only punishments. Hence it is a truism of history. It is what we usually call “revolution”. It is what the French did in 1789, what the Bolsheviks, Maoists did — and now what the Trumpists have done. They have ripped up the social contract that failed them. Trump is just the tiny hand tearing the paper.
Many so much so that they have turned into the rich world’s extremists, and now reject the idea of society altogether. Like the modern GOP, they do not “believe” in the idea of a government at all. Yet that way lies absolute collapse into anarchy Somalia — or relative collapse into autocracy like Turkey. I put believe in quotes because government is not really a belief, but a process.
When we employ the Great Leaders Theory of History, we fail to see all the above. We ignore the great and simple truth that a society’s historic leaders are made by its structural and institutional conditions. And by ignoring this truth, simply yearning for Great Leaders to save us, we remain paralyzed and blind — and vulnerable to Caesars, whether they are named Julian or Vladimir.
Angry, unhappy people demand bad leaders, who tear up social contracts. Happy, healthy, sane people don’t. Thus we must produce better followers today if we want better leaders tomorrow. What does “better followers” mean? It means people who aren’t ready to self destruct. Who can think beyond hyperrational, narrow self interest, partisan politics, aren’t ruled by greed, anger, and hate, whose lives aren’t one long sequence of disinformation, pain, and reaction. You can hardly blame people with lives like that for turning into Trumpists — and just blaming them is besides the point entirely.
How do we make such followers? It’s pretty simple, isn’t it? A society must give everyone the possibility to live a genuinely good life. Whether it is as mayors or CEOs or investors, or even just brothers and cousins and neighbors and friends. Then organizations, whether they are cities, towns, corporations, families, and so on, are less likely to rip up the social contract, reject the idea of society, and turn to demagogues. But if a society cannot make happy, healthy, sane people, then of course the result will just be the vicious cycle of angry people demanding bad leaders.
Here’s the takeaway. All the above is a way to say: what working societies really need are thousands of tiny genuinely good leaders. Not one “Great Leader”. A good leader is just someone with a powerful positive agenda and vision for a human organization — as big as a society or as small as a family. If we are mayors or CEOs or investors or neighbors and so on who can do the above in small ways, we are good leaders in a little way. And we are doing more than enough.
(If you wanna put it more formally: good leaders produce better followers who prevent society from demanding the wrong Great Leaders. Go ahead and put it in an differential equation if you want.)
A good leader, no matter how small, is worth far more than a great leader, no matter how bigly. Why? Because the former must precede the latter. Without thousands of tiny good leaders, societies don’t ever really go anywhere at all, no matter how many bombastic great leaders they have.
Great Leaders don’t make history. They just make headlines. History is really made by thousands of invisible tiny leaders. People who change organizations, whether families, cities, towns, or corporations, in small and often unremarkable ways. When those invisible leaders are good, people are sane and wise enough to follow paths that lead them to human possibility. When those leaders are bad, people are reduced to following the path of human folly.
It is up to all of us to be tiny but good leaders today. And to forget the Great Leaders Theory of History. That backwards theory is just another entry now in a long catalogue of American intellectual failures, from neoliberalism to segregation. It’s really just another to way say: they did it. The bad people. But they didn’t. Not alone. We did this. In us is the lack of a thousand tiny good leaders.
And only we can undo it.