The Limits of Leadership

I Mean What I Say

by Shashi Tharoor

6 min read
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In Berthold Brecht’s Life ofGalileo, there is an exchange between the great astronomer and a student of his. The student, Andrea, remarks: ‘Unhappy the country without heroes!’ The teacher is quick to respond: ‘No. Unhappy the country that needs them.’

Is India now becoming one of Galileo’s unhappy countries?

Historians have long argued about how much difference leadership in politics can make. In the 19th century there was a famous debate over opposed ideas of heroic leadership described by Thomas Carlyle and Leo Tolstoy. Carlyle, in his On Heroes, Hero Worship and the Heroic in History (1840), argues that it is crucially important, whereas in War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy denies that heroic power is even possible. The two differed on whether the hero (the leader) can actually manage a high degree of mastery and control over the social and political circumstances in which he operates, or whether individual leaders are greatly limited by forces and constraints beyond their control.

Tolstoy argued that history shapes and determines leaders, whereas Carlyle thought it was the other way around. In his epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy described kings and generals as history's slaves, riding the crests of historical waves beyond their comprehension, let alone control. "Every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own free will," wrote Tolstoy, "is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole cause of history and predestined from eternity." It was a far cry from Carlyle’s view that "history is the biography of great men," the greatest of them being kings.

Leo Tolstoy

Carlyle’s Great Man theory of leadership fell rapidly into disfavour. In 1898, Georgii Plekhanov published The Role of the Individual in History, articulating a sophisticated counter-view. Like Tolstoy he believed in large sweeping historical forces, but he granted individuals a role in epitomising, if not harnessing, them: “being conscious of the absolute inevitability of a given phenomenon can only increase the energy of a man who sympathises with it and who regards himself as one of the forces which called it into being,” he wrote. For Plekhanov, “every man of talent who actually appears, i.e. every man of talent who becomes a social force, is the product of social relations. Since this is the case, it is clear why talented people can, as we have said, change only individual features of events, but not their general trend; they are themselves the product of this trend; were it not for that trend they would never have crossed the threshold that divides the potential from the real.”

From this premise, though, Plekhanov ended up somewhere between Tolstoy and Carlyle: “The more or less slow changes in “economic conditions” periodically confront society with the necessity of more or less rapidly changing its institutions,” he wrote. “This change never takes place “by itself”; it always needs the intervention of men.” In other words, social forces are determinant, but individual leaders have a vital part in seizing and directing them towards specific outcomes.

During the 20th century, however, Leftists and Marxist theoreticians have gone further in dismissing the role of the individual in history, arguing that the hero is merely the symbol of much larger historical currents that sweep through the world and shape human destiny. But you don’t have to be a Marxist to share a circumscribed view of the role of individual leaders. One of the Great men of the 19th century, the “Iron Chancellor” who unified Germany, Bismarck, himself told the Reichstag in 1869: “we can neither ignore the history of the past nor create the future. ... My influence on the events I took advantage of is usually exaggerated; …. We cannot make history: [instead] we must wait while it is being made.”

Fast-forward to the present age. The historian Eric Hobsbawm has observed that the individual hero has little place in countries “where political leaders are embedded in institutions which limit their power as individuals”, like Western democracies. As examples he points to the fact that most US Presidents were often people of no great distinction, but “a strong economy and great power can be politically almost foolproof”. He favours “the force of structural explanations, which ‘emphasise what was likely to happen – on the whole, in the long run, in one guise or another’, irrespective of the intentions of the actors or their ability to carry them out.”

Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao

And yet, I do believe individuals make a difference. And in saying this, I am not just thinking of the “usual suspects” of 20th century history, Hitler, Stalin, Lenin, Mao – all larger-than-life individuals who transformed their countries through the force of their own individual personalities, convictions and drive, rising above and shaping the social forces they embodied. They can be dismissed with the cliché that they are the exceptions that prove the rule. Instead, I would argue that even in modern 20th and 21st century democracies built on liberal constitutions, hemmed in by institutional checks and balances, a vigorous political opposition and a free press, individual leaders have emerged who turned out to be larger than the systems that produced them -- and that did not confine or limit them.

After all, FDR transformed the US, turning that bastion of individualism and free-enterprise into something remarkably like a welfare state. By winning four successive Presidential elections – something no one had done before him and no one can in future, thanks to a subsequent Constitutional amendment – he personalised the “New Deal” that remade America into a very different country from the one in which he first ascended to power.

There are other leaders in modern democracies who can be seen as greater than their systems. Churchill’s outsize personality immortalised him as the lionhearted British bulldog standing defiantly astride the ramparts of Western civilization. Trump’s impulsive and unlettered mendacity showed Americans how fragile were the pillars of the republic they had erected. And Thatcher did a reverse-FDR in the UK, taking a welfare state down the path of supply-side economics and laissez-fair capitalism, dismantling the dominant union system that had stifled British economic growth in favour of distributive policies.

Margaret Thatcher | AP

Such individuals can be larger than ideologies: even Thatcher, who presided over what Hobsbawm witheringly described as a “conglomerate of egoism, political servility and moral blindness,” moved the entire centre of her polity rightward, so that her party was ultimately defeated by a Labour Party that had made itself so unrecognizably centrist that it called itself “New Labour”. One could argue similarly that Reagan’s reinvention of the conventional wisdom about American capitalism produced, in Clinton and Obama, centrist alternatives who absorbed rather than repudiated their rivals’ policies.

Many in India hailed Narendra Modi as such a transformative figure. He built upon the classic Hindutva message of his Bharatiya Janata Party a personality cult that led to the concept of “Moditva”. Modi relished portraying himself as the hero on a white stallion, charging down with upraised sword, possessing all the answers, ready to cut through the Gordian knot of the nation’s intractable problems. Every BJP election campaign in the smallest of Indian states was built around the towering personality of its leader. It was not a party or an ideology winning elections, it was an individual.

Narendra Modi

There is no doubt that Moditva’s spectacular failure on all fronts – demonetisation, the botched rollout of the GST, economic collapse, communal disharmony, the no-notice lockdown that triggered the migrant workers’ crisis, record unemployment, the mismanagement of the second wave of Covid, his silence while Manipur burns and many more – confirms yet again the limits to what untrammelled individual leadership can achieve. As popular revulsion mounts at Modi’s handling of the current Manipur crisis, it is clear his vaunted 56-inch chest is not enough to save India.

With elections looming, Moditva apologists take refuge in the “TINA” theory – “There Is No Alternative.” But that offers scant consolation. Military historians often cite German Field Marshal Rommel as an example of a great general who was vanquished by enemies far inferior to him. His opponents enjoyed advantages that mattered more than Rommel’s leadership qualities – organisational strength, adequate resources and a cause that people could rally round. Modi is lucky that the first two are not yet available to his adversaries. But once they are, larger-than-life leadership alone will not be enough to save him – or to sink I.N.D.I.A. Perhaps at that point, India will no longer be the unhappy country of Galileo’s fears.

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