The books on Bill Gates’ annual end-of-year book list this year are the usual mix of science, business, personal passions — and, as Gates calls them, “books about mundane stuff that are actually fascinating.” The Microsoft co-founder and Gates Foundation co-chair included “The Gene,” Siddhartha Mukherjee’s history of genomics, along with “String Theory,” a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace about tennis, which Gates loves to play. “The Grid,” a book about America’s aging electrical system, gets an honorable mention. And Gates calls “Shoe Dog,” Nike founder Phil Knight’s memoir, “a refreshingly honest reminder of what the path to business success really looks like: messy, precarious, and riddled with mistakes.”
Yet the fifth book in the quintet of recommendations is particularly relevant this year: “The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age.” The author of the 2014 book, Gates wrote in a blog post about his selections, “could not have predicted how resonant his book would become in 2016.” This year’s election prompted Gates to pick up the book, he wrote. The author, Oxford University professor Archie Brown, Gates wrote, “shows that the leaders who make the biggest contributions to history and humanity generally are not the ones we perceive to be ‘strong leaders.’ Instead, they tend to be the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate — and recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers.”
In a longer review of the book, Gates explains Brown’s core argument, a leadership truism many will recognize. “Despite a worldwide fixation on strength as a positive quality, strong leaders — those who concentrate power and decision-making in their own hands — are not necessarily good leaders,” Gates writes.” Instead, Brown’s book posits that those who make the biggest difference “are the ones who collaborate, delegate, and negotiate — the ones who recognize that no one person can or should have all the answers.”
While the book covers the people you’d expect in such a book — Hitler, Stalin, Mao — it’s at its most fascinating, Gates writes, when featuring those who most people with a casual acquaintance with history wouldn’t know, such as Spain’s Adolfo Suárez. “These leaders didn’t insist on their own infallibility or claim exclusive power over policy decisions,” he said. “And yet they pulled off incredible feats of leadership simply by working with others and seeking advice when they needed it.”
Curious to get Brown’s views on the most recent presidential election, The Post reached out to the emeritus professor, who has studied political leadership for more than 50 years. He was hesitant to offer an evaluation of what kind of leader Trump would be, given he has not yet taken office. Yet Brown shared his thoughts about the U.S. presidential campaign — one in which Donald Trump said “I alone can fix it” in a speech at the Republican National Convention, repeatedly criticized Hillary Clinton for her lack of strength or stamina and where his running mate often talked about “broad-shouldered” leadership and called Russian President Vladimir Putin a stronger leader than President Obama.
Below are excerpts of the discussion, which have been edited for space and clarity.
How much have you been talking about your book given that the topic of leadership “strength” was such a theme in this year’s U.S. election?
The only talk I’ve given on the subject of my book was in Doha, Qatar recently. Certainly it came up in discussions there after recent developments in the United States. When I was signing some copies of the book in the main bookshop in Oxford before the American election, an American from Dallas came up to me and looked to see what I was doing. And he said, ‘well, America needs a strong leader and Donald Trump is a strong leader.’ There’s anecdotal evidence and survey evidence that one of the attractions of Donald Trump is that people thought he was a strong leader. I argue that there are lots of other qualities, which are more useful than strength, as defined by someone who’s domineering and maximizes power, and that being a strong leader and being an effective leader are not quite the same thing.
What echoes of your book did you see in this year’s presidential campaign?
I think that certainly the Trump campaign wasn’t characterized by humility. It remains to be seen what kind of team he’ll complete. So far it seems to be a mixture of billionaires and generals — with some exceptions, but they do seem to be somewhat overrepresented. … I think it’s very important there should be diversity of experience within the team. The less the chief executive knows about politics and the outside world, the less political experience that person has, the more the quality and diversity of the experience of the team matters.
Has there ever been a U.S. election where the dichotomy between strong vs. weak leadership was as prominent as it was in this one?
I don’t think so. I think in Reagan against Carter there was a little of that, but it was all very civilized in comparison with the most recent campaign. Reagan was wanting to make America great again and strong again and implied that Carter had been weak. Though in fact, after the invasion of Afghanistan [in late 1979], the Democratic administration in the United States was already taking quite a hard line against the Soviet Union and building up defenses.
But this campaign — the tone of the campaign — was unlike any in my lifetime. It was so aggressive. It’s one thing to say that you want to defeat your rival. But to say that the rival should be in jail — that was something more reminiscent of a third world country.
You write that “the idea that charisma is a special quality a leader is born with needs to be severely qualified. To a large extent, it is followers who bestow charisma on leaders, when that person seems to embody the qualities they are looking for.” In what ways did you see that play out in our most recent election?
Many people saw Trump as a charismatic leader and then projected their hopes and their existing disappointments. They projected what they wanted to sense onto Trump. It’s rather strange that he was seen as the champion of blue-collar workers when the people he’s appointed [to the Cabinet so far] tend to be people who are very far removed from that milieu. This is a classic example of charisma being bestowed upon somebody.
Charisma really is a value-neutral term. Hitler was charismatic. Mussolini was charismatic. But then on the positive side, Martin Luther King was charismatic. So was Mahatma Gandhi. Everything depends on the values of the person who is deemed to be charismatic. Charisma is not something someone is born with and has all their life. They can lose it. Mussolini at the end was despised by most Italians because he led them into a disastrous war. So charisma can be lost.
Is that easier for people to do — to project those ideas of charisma — onto someone when their policy views are unclear?
I think it is. I think that the more detail on policy someone goes into, the more they may be regarded as technocratic or lacking in charisma. Somebody who paints a bold picture, however remote it may be from reality, is probably more likely to be deemed to have charisma. I think charisma, again, is an overrated virtue.
What would you say is the big takeaway or idea from your book?
That the worship of strength, in the sense of domination and maximization, is the worship of a false god. There are other qualities that are more important in a leader — integrity, intelligence, collegiality, empathy, having a questioning mind — and if we’re very lucky, the person has vision as well. There are many other qualities which are put ahead of strength — and I’m defining strength in the conventional way, as someone who is a maximizer of their power and wants to dominate all and sundry.
There’s a place in your book where you quote Harry Truman talking about Dwight Eisenhower. He suggested that Eisenhower, a general, would be sitting at his desk saying ‘Do this! Do that! And nothing will happen. Poor Ike — it won’t be a bit like the Army.’ Trump is used to being in charge of his business empire. How hard is it for someone accustomed to that kind of hierarchy to make the adjustment?
The military is a very hierarchical organization. So would Trump’s companies be hierarchical — there’s no question about who had the last word there. … That’s one reason why I would hesitate to say what kind of president he’s going to be. When he’s faced with the fact that he can’t simply issue a set of instructions and it’ll automatically happen — because it’s a very complex political system and there are still checks and balances — how he reacts to that will be very important.
Why do you think people are so drawn to this dichotomy between strong versus weak leaders?
It’s hard to say. There’s something rather primitive about it. Going back to a time when there were clans and people looking to the chief, the person who was the ruler was also usually the strongest person or the greatest military person in the group.