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What makes a great leader?

By Andrew M. Mwenda

If individual ability and the right circumstances are necessary but not sufficient for success, what else is needed?

Recently, I chanced upon a documentary on Discovery Channel titled “Altered Statesmen” and featuring British World War II hero, Winston Churchill. It is a story of alternative history. Good old Winston was a restless man and a war monger. He could not easily cope with peacetime because he would have nowhere to offload his enormous energy – so he became manic depressive. He would try to cure this by resorting to heavy drinking, which made him an alcoholic. When the Second World War broke out, he came to life again – telling his wife that he felt happy for the first time in years.

During the inter war years (1919 to 1939), Churchill was in the political wilderness – moody, grumbling and alcoholic. When Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933 and began rearmament, Churchill’s instincts and desires were aroused. So he began talking of a war to stop the German dictator’s ambitions before they grew out of control. But Europe, exhausted by the First World War, did not want war. So Churchill seemed out of place. Instead, popular opinion favored Neville Chamberlin, a gentleman who believed in doing anything to avert war. But when Chamberlin’s policy of appeasement (actually seen as the most reasonable thing at the time) failed to stop Europe’s descent to war his star fell alongside his government.


So as the Second World War began, Churchill was recalled and made First Lord of the Admiralty i.e. in charge of the British navy, the strongest in the world at the time. In May 1940, Chamberlin was forced out of office under shouts “You have been too long for any good you have done. In the name of God, GO! Churchill became Prime Minister just as the Germans were about to overrun France and the surviving British troops about to escape from Dunkirk. Then Hitler launched the Battle of Britain – sustained aerial bombardment of London and other cities. It seemed there was no chance that Britain would withstand the onslaught. Then Hitler offered an armistice.

Given the precarious position in which Britain was (Italy was fighting alongside Germany, Japan was Hitler’s ally, the Soviet Union had a non aggression pact with the German dictator, and the USA was totally against involvement in the war) no reasonable leader would have turned down Hitler’s offer. Churchill did. It was a big gamble but it paid off. This raises a fundamental question: was Churchill’s firm stand against Hitler a result of his strategic vision or his belligerent character? Yet Britain triumphed over Germany because of the many blunders Hitler made. What would have been the alternative history if Hitler had not made those blunders?

This begs the question of what makes some leaders successful and others failures. Those who believe in individual ability (agency) argue that it is the inherent qualities embedded in the personality of a leader. It is the theory advanced by Thomas Carlyle about the importance of the “great man” in history. For example, Timothy Kalyegira attributes all the failures of Uganda under President Yoweri Museveni almost entirely to the president’s personality. Others, like Charles Onyango-Obbo, take almost the opposite position attributing almost everything to the structural circumstances in which Museveni operates.

“Men make their own history,” Karl Marx wrote while commenting on the coup d’état by Louis Napoleon in France in his 1852 classic, The Eighteenth Brumaire, “but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.” Those who believe in predestination may attribute success or failure in leadership to fate, the stars or the gods; the ones more interested in science can call it luck.

The American historian William Durant was asked this question and he said that circumstances make demands on a leader’s ability, character and temperament. It is the leader’s ability to raise to the occasion, Durant reasoned, that determines whether he will succeed (and become great) or fail (and fall into the dustbin of history).

Human beings have different skills, values, personalities and temperaments. All these in and of themselves don’t make a great leader. Rather, it is how they are called upon by circumstances at a particular time. However, as the quote from Marx above shows, no leader determines the circumstance that will call upon his/her ability. That is decided by history (or fate). So it seems that great leaders don’t make themselves great. That is done by circumstances – circumstances that are chosen randomly. So the gods or stars or fate or luck – whatever you call it – is the ultimate decider.

This means that a leader is not a good leader per se but only good in relation to how his personality meets the right circumstances. A person who would have made a good leader during a period of prosperity may not be a good leader during periods of scarcity. Some leaders are good in inspiring people to fight, others to be peaceful. Possibly Mahatma Gandhi would have made a disastrous general and Alexander the Great would never have negotiated the unity of all Greece against the Persians by peaceful means.

Even in business, circumstances are just as good as one’s skills. And luck plays a central role in defining that. For example, there are CEOs who are good at managing start-ups but poor at running established businesses. There are those who are good at managing turnarounds but disastrous in managing thriving ones. There are people who make excellent CEOs only when managing big resources and others while managing meager resources. Again, leadership ability is a combination of the right interaction between structural imperatives and personal qualities.

Leaders are always at the mercy of chance because what they do has to interact with so many other complex and diverse variables many of which are beyond their control. As seen above, a lot of the achievements we attribute to Churchill were actually only possible because of blunders by Hitler. The Second World War could have gone either way. This shows that one’s legacy is shaped possibly more by forces beyond their control as by their own vision. This makes it important to study alternative history i.e. the “what if?”

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