Most leaders do not have visionary skills, but above all managerial skills. In every society and at every level of responsibility, day-to-day administrators are needed to run the institutions. But in times of crisis — war, rapid technological upheaval, sudden economic disruption, or ideological upheaval — merely managing the status quo can be the most dangerous course of all. In fortunate societies, such times produce transformational leaders. Two ideal types can be distinguished: the statesman and the prophet.
Far-sighted statesmen know that they have two fundamental tasks to perform. For one thing, they should protect their society by influencing circumstances and not letting them overwhelm them. Such leaders encourage change and progress while ensuring that their society retains a fundamental sense of itself.
On the other hand, they should moderate their imagination with caution and cultivate a sense of boundaries. You take responsibility – not only for the best, but also for the worst result. They are mostly aware of the many great hopes that have failed and the countless good intentions that could not be realized, the stubborn persistence of human selfishness, the hunger for power and violence.
According to this definition of leadership, statesmen are apt to take precautions against the possibility that even the best plans can fail and ulterior motives can hide behind even the most elegant formulation. They tend to be suspicious of those who personalize politics, because history teaches that structures that depend primarily on individual personalities are weak.
Ambitious but not revolutionary, they work within what they understand to be “historical frameworks,” advancing their societies while seeing their political institutions and fundamental values as a legacy to be passed on to future generations (albeit with modifications). , which preserve the core).
Smart statesmen know when new circumstances require them to go beyond existing institutions and values. But they also understand that if their society is to thrive, change must not be beyond the tolerable. They include the 17th-century decision-makers who designed the system of states of the Peace of Westphalia, as well as 19th-century European leaders such as Palmerston, Gladstone, Disraeli and Bismarck. In the 20th century, Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and Jawaharlal Nehru were leaders in statesman guise.
The second type of leader—the visionary or prophet—does not necessarily approach existing institutions from the perspective of what is possible, but primarily from a vision of what is necessary. Prophetic leaders invoke their transcendent visions as proof that they are right. In their longing for a blank canvas for their own designs, they see erasing the past as a priority – its treasures as well as its pitfalls. The good thing about such prophets is that they redefine what seems possible; they are the “unreasonable men” to whom George Bernard Shaw attributed “all progress.”
Believing in ultimate solutions, prophetic leaders tend to distrust the strategy of small steps as an unnecessary concession to time and circumstance; their goal is to go beyond the status quo, not just manage it. Akhenaten, Joan of Arc, Robespierre, Lenin and Gandhi are among the prophetic leaders of history.
The dividing line between these two types may appear absolute at first glance, but it is not insurmountable. Leaders can switch from one mode to the other – or lend themselves to one while being largely at home in the other. Churchill in his “Years in the Wilderness” and de Gaulle as leader of the “Free French” belonged in the prophetic category, as did Sadat at the height of his life.
In ancient times, Themistocles, the leader of Athens who saved the Greek city-states from being swallowed up by the Persian Empire, embodied an optimal blend of the two styles. According to Thucydides, Themistocles was “an infallible discerner of the moment in the briefest of reflections, and the best reckoner of the future in the broadest sense”.
A clash between the two types often ends inconclusively and disappointingly, due to their different standards of success. The endurance test for the statesman is the stability of political structures under stress, while the prophet bases his performance on absolute standards. While the statesman evaluates possible courses of action on the basis of their usefulness, not their “truth,” the prophet regards this approach as sacrilegious, as a triumph of opportunity over the universal principle.
For the statesman, negotiations are a stability mechanism; for the prophet they can be a means of converting or demoralizing opponents. And while for the statesman the preservation of the international order is more important than any dispute within this order, prophets are guided by their goal and are ready to overthrow the existing order.
Both types of leadership have been transformational, especially in times of crisis, although the prophetic style, which also represents moments of euphoria, is usually associated with greater upheaval and heavier suffering. Every approach also has its nemesis. That of the statesman is that while equilibrium may be the prerequisite for stability and long-term progress, it does not develop its own momentum. The risk for the prophet is that in an ecstatic mood humanity may be sacrificed in favor of a grand vision and the individual reduced to an object.
Regardless of their personality traits or actions, leaders inevitably face a relentless challenge: ensuring that the needs of the present do not overwhelm the future. Average leaders try to manage the situation at hand; big ones try to let their society grow with their visions. How to meet this challenge has been debated for as long as humanity has pondered the relationship between the wanted and the inevitable.
In the western world, since the 19th century, the solution has increasingly been ascribed to history, as if historical events overwhelmed men and women in a mighty process in which they were tools, not creators. In the 20th century, many scholars, including the eminent French historian Fernand Braudel, have insisted on seeing individuals and the events that shape them as mere “surface disturbances” and “foam ridges” in a larger sea of powerful and unrelenting tides .
Leading thinkers—social historians, political philosophers, and international relations theorists alike—have imbued unfinished forces with providential power. In the face of “currents”, “structures” and “power distributions” humanity is denied any freedom of choice – as a result it can do nothing but reject all responsibility. These are, of course, valid concepts of historical analysis, and any leader must be aware of their power. However, they are always implemented through human mediation and filtered through human perception. Ironically, there has not been a more efficient tool for the sinister consolidation of power by individuals than the theories of the inescapable laws of history.
This raises the question of whether these forces are endemic or subject to social and political action. Physics has established that reality changes through the process of observation. History also teaches that men and women shape their environment through their interpretation of that environment.
Do individuals play a role in the story? A contemporary of Caesar or Mohammed, Luther or Gandhi, Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt would never have asked himself this question. Great leaders were significant because they overcame the circumstances they inherited, thereby pushing their societies to the limits of what was possible.
We took the contribution from Henry Kissinger’s new book “Statecraft: Six Lessons for the 21st Century” (C. Bertelsmann Verlag).