Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Leadership Lessons

If the New Deal did not work the first time, why does anyone want to try it again. Thus asks Amity Shlaes in a Washington Post column that applies a theme she outlined in her book, "The Forgotten Man." Link to column here.

A good question, somewhat compromised when she says that even though FDR's policies aggravated the Depression, he was still a great leader because he gave great speeches that inspired everyone to hope.

But, great speeches do not make a great leader. In some parts of the world eloquence is disparaged because it is often used to mask failings.

Which would you prefer: an inarticulate leader whose policies got you back to work or an articulate leader whose policies prolonged a depression? Or, ask the question this way:Who did more for China, the inarticulate Deng Xiaoping of the eloquent and poetic Mao Tsetsung?

Good leadership involves formulating and executing policies that can by judged by the outcomes. As William James famously put it: "Truth is what works."

Sometimes a mythic figure becomes so powerful that a fact-based evaluation of his presidency is impossible. Such is the case of Franklin Roosevelt. The author of a failed policy that arguably aggravated the worst economic crisis in American history is lionized as one of our greatest presidents.

So, even if the New Deal did not work in the sense that Shlaes means, it still worked its magic politically.

The New Deal helped to make Franklin Roosevelt into an idol, a demigod, a political success the likes of which we have not seen since. His policies might not have rescued the economy, but they did get him elected president four times.

Roosevelt was the master of leadership as the will-to-power.

I did not invent this concept. The philosopher who did, Nietzsche, believed that it was the basis for all human motivation.

Those who have a less pragmatic bent or who have learned deconstructive thinking believe that the will-to-power is the truth, and that policies should be judged by what works, but by what maintains the person in power.

When a politician goes back on all of his campaign promises, it is not a sign of hypocrisy, but an expression of the will-to-power.

Politicians who live and die by will-to-power want to gain and hold power, regardless of what they have to say and to do to get and keep it. They do not care about results, except that reality often forces them to enlist the support of legions of historians, journalists, and propagandists who can demonstrate that good things are to their credit and that bad things are the fault of those who do not love them enough.

If you were wondering why the intelligentsia so often flock to failed leaders, the reason is simple: failed leaders make them feel more needed and more important.

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