Political Leadership

A general, a quarterback, and a father find themselves in positions of leadership. In these cases, leadership is not difficult to understand. It requires vision and execution. The general has a strategy and leads his troops to victory. The quarterback, also known as a “field general,” moves his teammates down the field toward the end zone. Victory is his purpose as well. The father has a responsibility to oversee the needs of the family members and help them to grow and fulfill their destinies.

Difficult as these leadership roles may be, they have the grace of dealing with others who, by and large, agree with these respective visions and cooperate with their execution.

A political leader faces a far more daunting task, for he assumes his leadership position already on the wrong side of a significant segment of public opinion. Given the fact that he knows that he will be strongly opposed, he realizes that he needs more than a vision and the wisdom to bring about its execution.

Doris Kearns Goodwin, who has thought long and hard about political leadership, having written highly acclaimed biographies of several American presidents, has remarked that political leadership means “staking your ground ahead of where opinion is and convincing people, not simply following the popular opinions of the moment”.

A political leader, therefore, must be somewhat of a philosopher, since only truth is sufficiently broad or universal to encompass everyone. Political parties tend to see but glimpses of truth and often compromise it in the interest of political expediency. Therefore, a political leader must rise above politics without abandoning it.

Mitt Romney has at least recognized the need for this broad vision. “Central to America’s rise to global leadership,” he has stated, “is our Judeo-Christian tradition with the vision of the goodness and possibilities of every human life.” At the same time, a political leader should be keenly aware of his personal fallibility. This is why Romney has said that “leadership is about responsibility, not making excuses.”

Moses, whose leadership role was ordained by God, had his recalcitrants. And political stalwarts such as Gandhi, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the two Kennedy brothers were assassinated.  Pope John Paul II and President Reagan were victims of assassination attempts. In the words of Shakespeare, “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”

Jacques Maritain, Catholicism’s most outstanding political philosopher of the 20th Century, questioned whether a “vitally Christian politics can arise in history . . . if the temporal mission of the Christian should go that far, if the witness of love should descend that far; or whether we must abandon the world to the devil in that which is most natural to it – civic or political life” (Lettre sur l’Indépendence, 1935).

The notion that the devil has an exceptionally natural affinity for the world of politics may seem discouraging to many people. Yet history has borne this out. The true political leader must continue to lead despite intransigent and irrational opposition. His success, at best, will be partial. He will be strongly tempted to capitulate to political correctness and thereby become a follower of the masses.

For Aristotle, the essential qualities of a leader are three:  ethos, pathos, and logos. The ethos is his moral character and the source of his ability to convince others; the pathos is his ability to touch feelings and move people emotionally; the logos is his ability to give solid reasons for particular actions and, therefore, to move people intellectually.

Yet Aristotle, himself, was persecuted and had to flee to avoid being assassinated.  He famously stated, with Socrates in mind, “I did not want Athens to sin twice against philosophy.”  Since then, have not many cities sinned many times against philosophy?

Who, then, would want to be a prominent political leader?  Novelist John Updike made the comment that “A leader is one who, out of madness or goodness, volunteers to take upon himself the woe of the people. There are few men so foolish, hence the erratic quality of leadership in the world.”

Leaders, nevertheless, should be daring without being foolish, generous without being servile.  These are paradoxes that are not easily harmonized.

Optimistically, a good political leader does the best he can under impossible circumstances.  Moses was a great leader because he was a follower of God. Leading his people out of bondage was made possible by the fact that his people knew they were in bondage.  How many Americans today, who are in bondage, know that they are in bondage?

Abraham Lincoln and Blessed John Paul II are heirs to the staff of Moses.  Lincoln once said, “I could not perform the duties for one hour if I did not know that I could call upon One who was stronger and wiser than all others.” For John Paul, “The indispensable source of energy and renewal, when frailty and weakness increase, is the encounter with the living Christ, Lord of the covenant.” They were servant-leaders, leaders who served God so that they could better serve mankind.

The present situation in America is particularly difficult inasmuch as the Judeo-Christian tradition has never before been under such massive assault. America needs a great leader, but are there enough Americans who truly believe that their country is “one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all”? Even a truly great leader will prove ineffective among uncooperative citizens.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a Senior Fellow of Human Life International. He is professor emeritus at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ontario, an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College in Cromwell, CT, and a regular columnist for St. Austin Review. His latest works, How to Remain Sane in a World That is Going Mad and Poetry That Enters the Mind and Warms the Heart are available through Amazon.com. Articles by Don: