Analysis | Kissinger Knows Why the Global Leadership Deficit Is Getting Worse


The general crisis of global leadership continues to deepen. One of Europe’s most impressive leaders, Italy’s Mario Draghi, has resigned in frustration. The leading candidate to replace the UK’s Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, is likely to make even more of a hash of things than he did. (Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s one-time consigliere, uses a trolley emoji to denote Johnson, because he careers all over the place, and a hand grenade to denote Truss.) Across the Atlantic, Joe Biden is hampered not just by old age but by an approval rating of just 38%. And in the emerging world, the president of Sri Lanka, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, has been driven out of office and the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salem, is wasting untold billions building a fantasy city in the desert, Neom, that features canals so that children can swim to school (thus solving the obesity crisis) and flying elevators.

Why is the quality of global leadership plummeting? The best explanation I have come across is provided by the 99-year-old Henry Kissinger in his new book, “Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.” This book should be prescribed reading for businesspeople not only because they need to understand an increasingly volatile political world, but also because the leadership problems that Kissinger diagnoses afflict businesspeople as well as politicians.

The ostensible subject of “Leadership” is the generation of leaders who made the postwar world: Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher. Kissinger knew all of these personally and, of course, worked intimately with Nixon.

But two pressing questions lie in the background: Will we see their like again — men and women who rise to the challenge of their times? And if we don’t, how much does it matter? Is history driven by abstract forces beyond our control? Are leaders merely “crests of foam” and “surface disturbances” as the French historian Fernand Braudel put it in “The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II”? Or are they capable of changing the direction of history?

Kissinger’s answer to the second question is overwhelmingly positive: Leaders may not be able to make history just as they please, but they can change its direction. Would France have remained a vital force in the postwar era without de Gaulle’s indomitable will and unshakeable belief in French grandeur? Or would Singapore have become a hub of the global economy without Lee’s obsession with cultivating talent and institutionalizing excellence? Sadat’s willingness to contemplate reconciliation with Israel, a revival of the “brotherhood of Ismail and Isaac” as he called it, surprised Israelis and Egyptians alike (and eventually got him assassinated). Nixon’s opening to China came as a bolt from the blue to the Cold War establishment. “Without leadership, institutions drift, and nations court growing irrelevance and, ultimately, disaster.”

Which makes his answer to the first question even more worrying: that the civilizational springs that water great leaders may be drying up. Nobody noticed this possibility during the “holiday from history” that followed the end of the Cold War. The job of political elites was essentially to consolidate the Reagan-Thatcher revolution while softening its harsher edges. The holiday from history is now over, thanks to the rise of strongmen in Russia and China and the rise in political volatility at home, but so far nobody comparable with the six figures who dominate this book has emerged.

Leadership is most vital during a period of transition from one order to another. We are certainly in such a period now — not only from the neoliberal order to something much darker but also to a new era of smart machines — yet so far leadership is lacking. We call for leaders who are equal to the times, but nobody answers.  

Kissinger offers two explanations for this troubling silence. The first lies in the evolution of meritocracy. (Full disclosure: He mentions a book I have written on this subject). The six leaders were all born outside the pale of the aristocratic elite that had hitherto dominated politics, and particularly foreign policy: Adenauer and Sadat were the sons of clerks, Thatcher and Nixon were the children of storekeepers, Lee’s parents were downwardly mobile. But theirs was a meritocracy with an aristocratic flavor. They went to elite schools and universities that provided an education in human excellence rather than just passing tests. In rubbing shoulders with members of the old elite, they absorbed some of its ethic of noblesse oblige (“For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required”) as well as its distaste for populism. Hence Lee’s recurring references to “Junzi” (Confucian gentlemen) and de Gaulle’s striving to become a “man of character.” They believed in history, tradition and, in most cases, God.

The world has become much more meritocratic since Kissinger’s six made their careers, not least when it comes to women and ethnic minorities. But the dilution of the aristocratic element in the mix may also have removed some of the grit that produced the pearl of leadership: Schools have given up providing an education in human excellence — the very idea would be triggering! — and ambitious young people speak less of obligation than of self-expression or personal advancement. The bonds of character and duty that once bound leaders to their people are dissolving.

The second factor Kissinger identifies is the decline of deep literacy under an onslaught of visual images and verbal snippets. A great leader’s first task is analysis — assessing the state of your society in the light of its history and mores. It is only when you have learned how to distinguish between significant facts and mere epiphenomena and simulacra that you can become an agent of change. The second task is education — convincing the public to share your vision of the future and bear the costs of historical change. But how can you understand your situation unless you study it deeply? And how can you get people to follow you unless you can produce soul-stirring rhetoric?

All six of Kissinger’s heroes were serious readers and writers. Sadat spent almost six years in solitary confinement with only books for comfort. In 1933, Adenauer retreated to a monastery to escape from the Nazis and spent his time studying two papal encyclicals, promulgated by Popes Leo XIII and Pius XI, which applied Catholic teachings to socioeconomic conditions. Thatcher read her official briefs until early in the morning and drew attention to grammatical errors and stylistic blunders. De Gaulle wrote some immortal French. Deep literacy provided them with what Max Weber called “proportion” — “the ability to allow realities to impinge on you while maintaining an inner calm and composure.” It also provided them with a sense of perspective as they put daily events into the wider scheme of history or even God’s will.

Today’s visual culture does exactly the opposite: It destroys any sense of “proportion” by immersing us in a never-ending stream of images and kills any sense of perspective by bombarding us with “breaking news.” Politicians devote ever more time to curating their image on Twitter and Instagram. Liz Truss is reportedly so addicted to “Insta” that, when she ran the Department of International Trade, employees dubbed it “the Department for Instagramming Truss.”

I would add two more problems to Kissinger’s list: the collapse of followership, a subject that I have written about before, and the crisis of the university. Universities have assumed an ever more central role in training today’s leaders as knowledge becomes more vital for success and other training institutions such as trade unions are marginalized. But if anything, they are getting worse at the job of producing leaders. Both students and faculty, particularly younger faculty, are in the grip of what Oliver Wendell Holmes called “the effervescence of democratic negation.” Academics are selected and promoted based on how many articles they produce rather than how much care they take over nurturing their charges. Liberal orthodoxy is now so entrenched that students don’t get a chance to engage with conservative or in some cases mainstream ideas: A recent survey by the Harvard Crimson newspaper found that only 1.4% of faculty members would describe themselves as “conservative.” To the extent that “character” is considered, it is interpreted purely in terms of social justice rather than older ideas of duty, service and nation-building.

What does all this mean for the business world? A popular thesis in the Davos class is that we suffer not so much from a decline in the number of outstanding leaders as from a reallocation of leadership talent from the public sector to the private sector. These days high achievers are naturally drawn to the private sector with its higher salaries and fast tracks to the top. Political parties are left with a noxious mixture of hacks and fanatics. And the obvious way to solve the public sector’s leadership problems is to draft in more people from the “real world.”

There is certainly something in this: America, for example, has benefited from its ability to recruit mayors from the business world. But I suspect that the crisis that Kissinger diagnoses applies to the private sector as well as the public sector. The meritocratic problem is even more marked in business than it is in politics: Most senior businesspeople believe that they deserve their pay and perks because they work so hard and possess such rare talent. (The current vogue for corporate wokery seems to have done nothing to reduce CEO pay, let alone restore it to the more modest levels that prevailed in a more patrician age.) The decline of deep literacy is just as much a problem in the boardroom as in the stateroom: Business leaders are simply too overwhelmed by fast-changing data to stand back and look at the bigger picture. The problem is at its worst in Silicon Valley where — to judge by the pronouncements of many leading tech entrepreneurs — extraordinary power over the world’s future seems to be combined with an almost child-like understanding of the human condition.

There are lots of things that we can do to address the leadership crisis on our own accounts. Leaders and would-be leaders can make sure that they carve out time for serious reading or calm reflection: Even when he was running Microsoft Corp. from day-to-day, Bill Gates would retreat to an isolated cottage for a week and meditate on a big subject. Parents can prepare their children for the world by encouraging them to read great literature or, better still, commit some of it to memory. But individual action is unlikely ever to be enough given the size of the forces eroding the store of leadership qualities. We need to do more to protect society from the digital deluge — perhaps following Finland and requiring schools to teach children about fake news. We also need to add a little more old-fashioned conservatism to our educational systems — emphasizing the importance of duty and high culture as well as the claims of meritocracy, on the one hand, and social justice, on the other.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:

• What True Conservatives Should Care Most About: Tyler Cowen

• Remote Schooling’s Perverse Social Divide: Justin Fox

• Stop These Cruel Experiments With Our Kids’ Education: Andreas Kluth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. A former writer at the Economist, he is author, most recently, of “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”

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