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The Myth of the Strong Leader

Political Leadership in the Modern Age

By Archie Brown
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The Myth of the Strong Leader by Archie Brown

The Myth of the Strong Leader (2014) explores why people tend to favor charismatic leaders, those they perceive as “strong.” These blinks show which factors allow such leaders to rise to power and why such a personality type shouldn’t necessarily lead a democratic society. Importantly, you’ll learn what can happen on an international scale when ill-suited “strong leaders” take the reins of a democracy.

Key idea 1 of 7

The public’s conception of what makes good political leadership is deeply flawed.

Popular political opinion is shaped by certain influences, such as public speeches, media reports and lobbying efforts. But as a society, we’re not swayed into supporting particular leaders but often a certain kind of leader.

The media tends to portray a political leader as more powerful than the sum of the leader’s political party. This makes the public less likely to consider the inner workings of any democratic system, as the most attention is given to the leader at the top.

Leaders, in turn, often believe their own hype, making them seem more powerful in the eyes of the people. Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, wrote in his autobiography that he himself won three elections, rather than attributing his success to the Labour Party. His self-confidence was such that many came to see Blair as a sort of political messiah.

The public also mistakenly believes that a country’s well-being is contingent on its leader’s strength of character. Politicians themselves feed this perception, especially during election seasons.

It’s common for a politician to use “strong vs. weak” rhetoric to diminish opponents. So the electorate comes to view politics as yet another game of “survival of the fittest.”

Tory party head David Cameron, for instance, tried to paint Ed Miliband as “weak” when Miliband was named Labour leader. When Tory backbenchers defied party whips on a particular policy issue, however, Miliband tried to turn the tables by claiming that Cameron instead was the weak leader, having “lost control of his party.”

It’s true that a person who can’t stand up for himself won’t do well in politics, but being an effective leader isn’t just about strength. After all, survival also means knowing when to back away from danger.

The public misconception that leadership should be about power comes with a big risk, as it can push society toward totalitarianism.

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