Even a cursory reading of history reveals that great and tragic events often revolved around one person – a leader, for good or ill. If you are a person of Abrahamic faith, you know that God required a person named Moses to change the fate of Israel. Closer to our own times, decisions by the leaders of each of the major powers, and many of the lesser powers, have consequences that are with us to this day. Had Wilson not gone to Versailles, the entire history of the 20th century could have been different. Perhaps quite different and better. Had Reagan lost to Carter in 1980, the ending of the cold war and even the relations with the Islamic world could have been vastly different.
It’s an undeniable fact of history that a bad leader in a brilliantly organized system of government and society can cause monumental problems and potentially destroy the very country or business or system that he/she leads. Equally true is the fact that a great leader in a bad system can dramatically improve life for his or her constituents and the world at large. The best situation, of course, is a good leader (or leaders) in a well organized, morally sound system of government. But since systems are just organizations of people, the people in leadership positions matter even more than the system itself in the end. A group of corrupt leaders could undo 240+ years of American progress, for instance. The system is certainly good enough that it would take a horrendous leader to truly destroy it. Both the people and the commonly accepted attributes of the system have great impact. But it’s a mistake to think one or the other, by themselves, can fully determine societal outcomes.
When I say commonly accepted attributes, I simply mean that which society as a whole accepts as definitionally true. For instance, society in the US accepts that freedom of speech is a fundamental right and that it is guaranteed by the constitution. Of course, this is logical and historically accurate. However, if the overwhelming majority believed that freedom of speech meant that no one could say anything that offended anyone, this would be accepted as the constitutional meaning, regardless of historical fact. This is because human beings make decisions about normalcy just as we make decisions about everything, with emotional bias as the major factor. Anyone in business or sales knows the old adage that the customer makes the buying decision emotionally and then supports it logically. Logic does constrain us, but not completely. The overall group emotional state of society is, to a great extent, what determines the direction and movement of a society. This is why leaders matter so much. A great leader can move a society in ways it doesn’t think it can or will or should go. Now, to be sure, there have been many great leaders throughout history who were horrible, selfish and sometimes crazy people. A great leader is not necessarily the person with the highest morals, although strong morality is attractive in a leader. It’s not necessarily the smartest person around, although intelligence is attractive. It’s not necessarily the best looking, the most successful or any other attribute you can name, save one. A great leader is one who can make people feel the way they want them to feel and therefore take action on those feelings en masse. A great leader taps into the deep feelings people have and causes them to move. Whether Churchill’s rousing “never give up” speeches that inspired the British people to continue the struggle against the Nazi’s, when they could have easily surrendered if they were demoralized. Or whether it was Hitler himself, on the other end of the moral spectrum, taking the feelings of unfairness at the outcome of World War 1 and turning them into an industrial war machine possessed of an overwhelming sense of their own superiority and rightness. Both men tapped into deeply felt emotions of the populace and moved their peoples farther than they would have gone without the “leader”. Again, good leadership doesn’t require a good person. Many great leaders in history became the greatest war criminals of all time and tainted their societies in their generation with their evil. And we still experience those outcomes today as we look at China and the Maoist revolution or Russia and the lingering effects of Stalinism. Or the deep emotional wounds and revulsion by current generations of Japanese and Germans for the offenses during war in previous generations. Leadership matters, deeply.
I frequently hear that “both parties are the same, it doesn’t matter who you vote for”. I find this an astonishing statement for those who pay attention to history. Of course, one party or another may not create the wholesale change that anyone would want on either end of their political spectrum. This is because of the aforementioned societal normalcy definitions and the inertia of society. It takes a long time to affect substantial change when the number of people affected are large, except in the case of natural or man-made disaster. Some will say that it doesn’t matter because whichever party is in power, the debt has gone up, corruption has remained in government or other such large issues have remained. And it is true that no party has or can dramatically move the country quickly except in times of disaster. But it is also true that leadership can change the overall direction of a country and also see it through difficult times. It can create positive change and advancement or it can create negative change.