The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Features of Good Leadership In Societies & Large Groups

Leaders have power. They often don’t have to care what happens to most people, because those people can neither help nor hurt them. As a result, most leaders act badly, and hurt great numbers of people.

There are three qualities you need in a good leader of large groups.

1) kindness to people who can never help or hurt them. This is the origin of seeing how people treat waiters or other service staff.

The problem with this test is that a lot of people want to be liked by everyone they meet and are good at making it happen. Bill Clinton was famous for making everyone he met feel important. He also signed the bill slashing Welfare and did various other things that hurt many Americans and people overseas, in particular imposing murderous sanctions on Iraq and bombing a pharmaceutical factory.

Still, it’s the first test. It’s less important than the second and third qualities.

2) concern for the affect of their actions on people they will never even meet.

Most people a leader will affect he or she will never meet. So they have to care about people they don’t know, or they won’t try and do right by them. Almost no major politician alive passes this test. Jeremy Corbyn did: he cared about everyone.

3) Willingness to take away the power of bad actors, even if that hurts them.

If you care about everyone and won’t hurt a fly, you can’t deal with people who do harm. This was Corbyn’s flaw: he wouldn’t remove staffers and MPs who stood in direct opposition to his policies and beliefs and who made it clear  they wanted to do him nothing but harm. The staffers took deliberate actions to make Labor lose the election and in 2017 the margin of loss was so small that Corbyn would probably have been Prime Minister if they hadn’t.

MPs could have been re-selected (made to undergo primaries when the majority of those voting were left-wing, to oversimplify) en-masse, but Corbyn never did that either. If he had, Labour would still be controlled by the left and would eventually back into power, whether Corbyn was leader or not. Instead Keir Starmer has done what Corbyn wouldn’t, and purged the party (of left wingers in his case) and, in fact, will probably back into power not because he is liked at all, but because people are sick of Johnson and the Tories.

The task of any form of selection of who leads is to select good leaders. It is clear that representative democracy does not do so, and so we need to find a better way. This is true of groups we don’t consider governmental, but which really are, like corporations, as well.



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Open Thread


  1. Astrid

    I think quality 1 isn’t that important in a good leader. Many good leaders are also philanderers, bad with money, have nasty tempers, or thoughtless to their staff. Quality 2 may or may not be that important in great leaders, depends on their objectives. I think you can be a high functioning psychopath and still do good things, it just depends on the principles that you’re operating under.

    Quality 3 is absolutely necessary. Even if you don’t use it often and will try your utmost to avoid destroying your enemies, you must be capable of doing so decisively when the time comes. Otherwise you might as well go home now.

  2. Willy

    I worked in numerous places in the gig economy nationwide and noticed that the best bosses I ever had pretty much went nowhere. Permanent first level managers they were. While the bad bosses were focused on screwing over rivals and playing kiss up kick down (while keeping up appearances of course), the good ones were busy doing the hard work of doing a good job for the good of the company.

    I think the problem was that too many minions just accepted that as the way of things.
    Yet I also noticed that far too many other minions were easily manipulated by hope and fear, lies and misinformation, in spite of what the actual actions, competencies and results of whatever their overlord was.

    To me it seems so simple. Actions speak louder than words. Ye shall know them by their fruits. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Mama always said that stupid is as stupid does. (Whatever happened to all the pithy little truisms anyways?)

    Knowing who to trust… when you give them power. Or as your ally in your own little world. This seems like it’d be a good topic for the “Preparing for bad times” thread as well.

  3. someofparts

    Using Willy’s example of bosses at work, I would say that one of the best managers I ever worked for had that #3 quality Ian notes. He was known by those of us lucky enough to work for him as a bad a** who would not hesitate to face down others in the organization who tried to keep his people from doing our best work. When they went after me at the end, they did it on a day when he was off, and just disappeared me, never even telling him why I was suddenly just no longer on the job site.

  4. anon

    Kindness and caring are underrated characteristics in leadership. A person can have all of the work qualifications and educational background for a leadership role, but it won’t matter if they are coldhearted, calculating, and self-interested. Many people who go into politics fall into that category. If you don’t care enough about the people who you are supposed to serve, you’ll be easily bought when you get into power.

  5. Dan Lynch

    Ian said It is clear that representative democracy does not do so, and so we need to find a better way.


  6. I think you need ties to something larger so you deeply understand community and cooperation. the decent bosses I had were in union shops who understood the reasons for and rules of unions.

    I think you need the street smarts of knowing when to kiss ass and when to kick ass- because everyone needs both skills to survive and the wisdom to know which is needed when.

  7. vmsmith

    I spent most of my adult life in the military—in combat units—where leadership was the coin of the realm. I think you’re using the term ‘leadership’ very loosely. Too loosely.

    A leader is someone who motivates others to apply their discretionary efforts to goals and objectives outside their personal interests.

    The ‘discretionary’ part is key. If an effort is not discretionary, it’s mandatory. And mandatory efforts get managed or administered.

    So if someone is a real leader—and inspiring others to apply their discretionary efforts . . .etc. —then those three things are moot. You can’t make a list of things like that that real leaders do or do not do. Their real power comes from their ability to motivate people to go beyond themselves.

  8. Kfish

    Willy’s right. The people who focus on climbing the power hierarchy will outcompete those who focus merely on being good bosses. In a competitive environment, being power-hungry and amoral is an advantage. Being merely good at the top job isn’t.

  9. ptb

    Hope this isn’t where the argument leads, but there’s nothing great about systems with highly centralized power. There may be pairwise comparisons in which centralized systems deliver better results, but IMO that’s mostly a product of the former holding up better when under attack (e.g. south america type scenarios).

    Politics in any form is a miserable game that consistently promotes the worst people to the top.

  10. Ian Welsh

    I don’t actually have a solution yet. Just noting the problem.

    If forced, I’d use sortition with some fierce protections against post-facto bribery.

  11. bruce wilder

    Henry Ford is supposed to have said that the question, “who should be boss?” is like the question, “who should sing tenor in the choir?” The answer to the latter is, someone who can sing tenor.

    Ian’s answer focuses on personal qualities: he would like to have a nice guy, who is willing to get tough for good reasons. The problem, as he frames it, is how to find a process of selecting such people. Like Astrid, I wonder if that really holds up to scrutiny. In other contexts, Ian has been very clear on the important distinction between “great” in a world-historical context and “good” in terms of personal moral virtues or vices.

    If we are not good at selecting leaders, I suggest part of the problem is that most of us have no friggin’ idea how to judge the performance of an individual in an official capacity of high-level leadership or authority. We might appreciate a good tenor, but would not recognize a good boss at a much higher level than foreman. If we had any lever of influence, we would pull it at random from rank ignorance, much as I am convinced we vote.

    Lots of people, frankly, seem to want or expect a saintly, self-sacrificing leader. Ian doesn’t, as far as I can tell, but it is a commonly held standard and foolish to the point of silly. If “representative democracy” as such fails in our time, it fails because anti-democrats are far more willing to pay well than (small-d) democrats. The soaring pyramid of income inequality has made psychopathic ambition and anti-social financialization pay really well and the winners are mostly far more willing to pay for government than are the mass of still nice, working and merely middle-class people.

    “Our representative democracy” (sarcasm) features “representatives” of giant business corporations and extremely wealthy people, spokesmodel politicians who buy the electorate they need with campaign cash. No one can make much of a career or even a living organizing mass support into a political movement. We talk a lot about fake news and disinformation, but I think if we look closely at people who try to achieve leadership from the genuine support of masses of people — politicians or pundits or union or interest-group leaders, we would see they are taken out early or late by carefully orchestrated dis-organization — done in by career campaign staff as Sanders was in his second campaign for President, done in by moral-panic scandals or subverted by demagogic attacks.

    If not being eager to pay well to be led by the genuinely great and good is an obstacle, it stands right behind other weaknesses of the mass of people en masse: suspicion of people who want to be powerful and study how to be powerful is one. Discomfort with the noise of political conflict is another. Economists who think about it deeply realize that the efficiency that matters to a highly productive polity is the ability to get to a fair deal with as little theft, skimming, negotiation, sleight-of-hand, haggling, fraud, extortion and violence as possible. Pay “high-powered” lawyers and bankers poorly; pay teachers, civil servants and policemen well. Honor the right of workers to organize and strike as sacred. But, in real life, it often seems very easy for a PR hack to make a labor union “greedy” and “ungrateful” while an Elon Musk is a hero.

    Effective leaders are made often, in large part, by an unusual mass of good followers, who have deliberated a bit among themselves on the ideals and practicalities of how institutions could work well and ought to be made to work with the crooked timber of humanity in the rafters. Most of us today are not good followers, certainly not discerning followers blinded as we tend to be by gaslight and false hope. We are bad followers partly because we have scarcely any secure hold on any fixed idea in common about how institutional systems can be made to work well. I know lots of people who grasp some straw or another of institutional reform, like Electoral College reforms or proportional voting, or Modern Monetary Theory’s ideas about how to talk about public spending strategy. Some things are well-known in a trivial pursuit sort of way: the importance of a public policy of financial repression, breaking or heavily regulating monopoly, or high marginal tax rates, for example. Prohibitions on usury are kind of no-brainer, but like health care without health insurance, somehow inconceivable.

  12. Ché Pasa

    “We” — as in the body-corporate — don’t choose our leaders. They are chosen for us in the public sector, and as we see so often, they assert their leadership in the private sector through through various means including class and positional inheritance, bullying, “personality” for good or ill, and on occasion, suitability and skill.

    Voting doesn’t change that. Our vaunted Democracy is a means of preserving, protecting and defending a system that assures oligarchic ascendancy in perpetuity. Our rulers sometimes show flashes of decency, compassion, competence and so forth, but our political systems do not select for those qualities and often force worse outcomes from those in leadership who try to do right. We’ve seen it over and over and over again if we’ve lived for a while and observed or participated in the Leadership Show.

    FDR is held up as such a saintly character, and yet he was not able to do the kind of good he announced in his famous Second Bill of Rights speech in 1944. He was hamstrung not just by war but by so much reactionary and negative political and financial pressure in and out of government that the moment he died, the focus of government became the defeat of the Soviet Union, not the betterment of the American People.

    It would have to wait for the assassination of JFK and the ascendancy of LBJ for the interests of the American People to come first — at least for a brief while. It was LBJ and a congressional majority who accomplished what FDR could not — implementing most of the provisions of the Second Bill of Rights and expanding civil rights to otherwise excluded minorities — an accomplishment immediately attacked, subverted and undermined by inherent reaction — and by the build up of falsely premised war in Southeast Asia that LBJ went along with almost mindlessly.

    This was among many flaws in our systems that cannot be compartmentalized and extirpated. They aren’t removed by voting, nor by somehow elevating good-great (wo)men to high office, especially when the means of selection mitigates against it.

    For many years, the forces of reversion and reaction have had the upper hand in both the public and private spheres. They’ve gained enormous power and wealth and don’t intend to cede any of it on behalf of anyone but themselves, ever. We are stuck with them until they are gone, and they aren’t going to go quietly.

    Those with the energy to rise up against the current systems of rule and personalities in office are all on the reactionary right. The so-called “left” is the party of the status quo; in other words, the conservative party ill suited to and in capable of leadership.

    The war in Ukraine is being fought by fascists against Nazis. Fun, eh? But that’s how Europe fell into World War in 1939; most of Europe was ruled by versions of fascist parties, including in Poland. The German Reich was ruled by Nazis — extreme fascists who sought greater and ever greater conquest and did so by attacking or absorbing their fascist neighbors. We’re seeing right now that Europe — in the form of NATO — is just fine with Ukrainian Nazis going mano-a-mano against Russian fascists (stupidly being Red-baited by the US) and are just fine with Nazis and fascists within their own societies.

    So realistically, whatever the outcome of the current war on the edges of Europe, that’s our future — under Nazi or fascist rule. Can there be “good” Nazis or fascists? Might want to think about the fact that Spain and Portugal and most of Latin America was under fascist rule for decades after the supposed victory of “democracy” in 1945. And they really haven’t been able to throw off the fascist yoke or style of rule since, despite occasional “leftist” victories at the polls or by revolution. You’d have to ask the public in fascist-ruled lands whether their rulers have been “good.” The answer will vary depending on who you ask. Petit bourgeoisie and upper classes will almost always say yes, fascist rule is not just “good,” it’s the “best.” Lower orders will generally say, ha, we can barely survive. The reverse is true in the very few socialist/communist ruled countries.

    So are there any current examples of “good leadership” on a large scale? Anywhere? Or are we forever stuck with a muddle at best?

  13. bruce wilder

    Reflecting on my own comment above, I remember how Hannah Arendt insisted that strength is a property of persons, animal bodies really, and power is a property of social organization. Man is a political animal, Aristotle observed. And apparently one easily herded en masse by propaganda. The vast majority are not organized for themselves in any important way “from the bottom-up” so to speak. We are passive consumers of propaganda designed by experts and the result is one mass formation psychosis after another sweeping through a herd vaccinated and boosted repeatedly against critical thought. The thing is, deliberative thought is inherently a social, cultural activity and in the social atomism of our neoliberal paradise no alternative where thought might gain critical mass is allowed. We are not organized for it and such organization is not allowed. The memory of a time when it was possible is fading and under duress.

    The Ukraine hysteria — surely another example of mass formation psychosis — is sweeping away antique and disused principles, habits and legal protections. Will the neoliberal slime mold break or slither after the remaining sugar in our petri dish, without any critical thought emerging into consciousness?

  14. BaryonicBeing

    I’d been thinking of sortition as well over the past year as Western elites let covid run rampant. My main hesitation is that these same elites have spent many many decades salting the Earth among a big chunk of the population, at least in the US. Would probably still be better than the current setup though.

  15. Astrid

    Bruce and Che,

    Thanks for your comments. Giving me a lot to think about.

    Letting COVID run amuck is the first solid sign to me that the Western elites have no idea what they’re doing. Their inactions on financialization and climate change could be IBGYBG issue, but their inactions over such a clear and present danger simply because they personally gotten much wealthier, blew my mind.

    Now they’re driving China, Russia, and likely most of the global South into a separate trading block, ensuring supply shortages and logistical nightmare for years to come, and sunsetting the petrodollar hegemony… And the stock market keeps going up? All this to contain a Russia that was presenting no danger to the West and help neo-Nazis?

    Mind further blown.

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