The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age


All too frequently, leadership is reduced to a simple dichotomy: the strong versus the weak. Yet, there are myriad ways to exercise effective political leadership—as well as different ways to fail. We blame our leaders for economic downfalls and praise them for vital social reforms, but rarely do we question what makes some leaders successful while others falter. In this magisterial and wide-ranging survey of political leadership over the past hundred years, renowned Oxford politics professor Archie Brown ...
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The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age

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All too frequently, leadership is reduced to a simple dichotomy: the strong versus the weak. Yet, there are myriad ways to exercise effective political leadership—as well as different ways to fail. We blame our leaders for economic downfalls and praise them for vital social reforms, but rarely do we question what makes some leaders successful while others falter. In this magisterial and wide-ranging survey of political leadership over the past hundred years, renowned Oxford politics professor Archie Brown challenges the widespread belief that strong leaders – meaning those who dominate their colleagues and the policy-making process – are the most successful and admirable.

In reality, only a minority of political leaders will truly make a lasting difference. Though we tend to dismiss more collegial styles of leadership as weak, it is often the most cooperative leaders who have the greatest impact. Drawing on extensive research and decades of political analysis and experience, Brown illuminates the achievements, failures and foibles of a broad array of twentieth century politicians. Whether speaking of redefining leaders like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, and Margaret Thatcher, who expanded the limits of what was politically possible during their time in power, or the even rarer transformational leaders who played a decisive role in bringing about systemic change – Charles de Gaulle, Mikhail Gorbachev and Nelson Mandela, among them – Brown challenges our commonly held beliefs about political efficacy and strength.

Overturning many of our assumptions about the twentieth century’s most important figures, Brown’s conclusions are both original and enlightening. The Myth of the Strong Leader compels us to reassess the leaders who have shaped our world – and to reconsider how we should choose and evaluate those who will lead us into the future.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Oxford University emeritus politics professor Brown (Rise and Fall of Communism) offers a panoramic view of global leadership mixed with a survey of 20th-century political systems. Brown weighs individuals and governing styles in brief, densely packed studies of Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Josef Stalin, Fidel Castro, and others change-makers, examining Turkey and Atatürk, Russia and the Bolsheviks, and leaders in totalitarian regimes, including Adolph Hitler. While Brown’s beau ideal of the transformational leader is the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev, he praises Nelson Mandela for the relatively peaceful transition from apartheid in South Africa, and Deng Xiaoping for decisive changes in Chinese communism. Rich in historical detail and insight, Brown’s volume reminds us that face-to-face meetings of world leaders were rare before 1945 and that Neville Chamberlain was the first prime minister to use an airplane in international diplomacy. British politics animate much of the book, with Brown expressing disdain for “strong leaders” with “foreign-policy illusions,” and pointing the finger at Chamberlain, Anthony Eden, and more recently, Tony Blair, whom he accuses of “Napoleonic ambitions.” Brown argues that no American president can be transformational and no president has been so since Abraham Lincoln, a proposition that many U.S. historians will contest. In addition, he sidesteps appraisal of Barack Obama on the premise it’s too early to tell, a caution that will leave some readers unfulfilled. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell. (Apr.)
From the Publisher

Washington Post
“A lively and probing scholarly reflection on the interplay of power and high politics.”

Foreign Affairs
“Rich and multidimensional.”

Wall Street Journal
“It is a pleasure to find a book on political leadership that imposes no theories or models but studies actual political leaders, dozens of them from many countries, in a historical survey from the beginning of the 20th century.”

Guardian, UK
"A rich description of different varieties of political leadership in diverse cultures. It is hard to imagine a better guide than Brown, who has lived and worked in the UK, US and Russia, and is both an outstanding political scholar and an elegant, witty writer.”

Independent, UK
“Persuasive analysis of politically leadership.”

“Impressive in scope and sophistication, Brown offers a model of leadership that is both strong and purpose driven.”

“A sure-handed historical review with an engaging viewpoint.”

Publishers Weekly
“Rich in historical detail and insight.”

"Brown raises important questions about the nature of leadership and the expectations we have for our leaders."

Ian Kershaw
"A profound, and wise, book - one of the most important works on politics for a long time. On the basis of penetrating, wide-ranging analysis, traversing democratic and authoritarian systems, Archie Brown clearly demonstrates the commonly held belief in strong leadership as the answer to political problems to be completely, often disastrously, misplaced."

Anthony King, Professor of Government at the University of Essex and co-author of The Blunders of Our Governments
"This book badly needed to be written, and only Archie Brown – with his unique breadth of scholarly knowledge combined with a finger-tip feel for real-world politics – could possibly have written it. It turns out that there are fewer strong leaders in the world than is often supposed and that many of them, far from being desirable, are positively dangerous. Perhaps the best political systems are those that are effectively ‘leader-proofed’."

Alfred Stepan, Wallace Sayre Professor of Government, Columbia University
"A major comparative and revisionist history about political leadership in the modern world. In deftly and beautifully written analyses of democratic leaders such as South Africa's Nelson Mandela, Spain's Adolfo Suárez, Britain’s Clement Attlee, or the USA’s Harry Truman, Brown shows how none of them overpowered colleagues and opponents as the strong leader thesis holds, but instead articulated a better possible future and won strong coalitional support for this future. Political leaders, commentators, professors and students looking for what good leadership requires, and does not require, can read this book with great profit and pleasure."

Wm. Roger Louis, University of Texas, Past President of the American Historical Association
“A magnificent achievement, The Myth of the Strong Leader combines bold conceptual analysis with vivid descriptions of leaders ranging from Stalin and Hitler to Roosevelt and Churchill, from Mao Zedong and Fidel Castro to LBJ and Nelson Mandela. Archie Brown examines the types of power and leadership amassed by such diverse figures as Lenin, Ataturk, de Gaulle, Gorbachev, and Margaret Thatcher. This is a book which will be read with sheer pleasure by the general reader for its riveting insights and by students throughout the world as a lucid and witty guide to distinctive kinds of political leadership.”

Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government
"Hallelujah! For those of us in Leadership Studies the dry spells can be long—long periods of time without sensational additional contributions to the field. Brown's is such a book, a gift to serious students of leadership, equally a gift to thoughtful practitioners. As befits a historian and political scientist of international eminence, Brown has crafted a sweeping survey of the field. Some of the book is theory but most of it is rooted in the real world of leaders, followers, and the political context within which the two necessarily are embedded. This, finally, is a book that belongs on the shelf of anyone, everyone, who is remotely interested in the political dynamics of dominance and deference.”

Gary Hart, Former United States Senator
“The best analysis of the nature of true leadership I have read. Turning his considerable erudition on Russia and communism to the vaguely-discussed but seldom qualitatively defined question of political leadership, Professor Brown dismantles the myth that power equals strength and that strength guarantees positive outcomes. Genuine leadership, he cogently argues, redefines national directions and social agendas and transforms entire political systems as the means to move nations forward. History, experience, and wisdom underwrite his case.”

Charles King, Professor of International Affairs and Government, Georgetown University
“For nearly a half century, Archie Brown has been one of our most perceptive observers of world leaders and their contexts, from Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union to Margaret Thatcher's Britain and beyond. His message is that our virtues are in fact our vices. Being decisive, staying the course, and having a clear vision are lauded as the core requirements of good leadership--yet they have just as often blinded those in authority to the folly of their own choices. Established leaders as well as aspiring ones should heed the lessons in Brown's timely book.”

Jack F. Matlock, Jr., author of Autopsy on an Empire, Reagan and Gorbachev, and Superpower Illusions
“A brilliant analysis of leadership in democratic, authoritarian, and totalitarian states, Archie Brown’s The Myth of the Strong Leader draws on a remarkably wide range of examples and is distinguished by the relevance of its insights and by the precision and clarity of their exposition. It is an absorbing read that deserves to become a modern classic of political thinking.”

Lilia Shevtsova, Chair, Russian Domestic Politics and Political Institutions Program at the Carnegie Moscow Center
“This is a real triumph of scholarship and intellect - and brilliantly written. Archie Brown demonstrates how dangerous is the myth of the strong leader and he pinpoints the disservice it does to society. The book is awesome in the depth of its analysis and in providing truly indispensable insights.”

Kirkus Reviews
Brown (Emeritus, Politics/Oxford Univ.; The Rise and Fall of Communism, 2009, etc.) addresses an apparent paradox in attitudes about political leaders. While people are presumed to prefer strong leaders, the author contends that leaders who attempt to appear overtly strong are actually less effective than more self-effacing ones. By the "strong leader" of the title, Brown means leaders who seize the responsibility for decision-making in all spheres of government, without deferring to colleagues with greater expertise in their areas of responsibility. Such leaders are essential to some authoritarian regimes, such as the fascist states of the 1930s or the "cult of personality" communist states like Russia under Stalin or North Korea today, but they appear in democracies as well, usually with unfortunate results. Regardless of the form of government, Brown argues that while the man on the white horse may cut the most striking figure, he is more likely to make faulty decisions on his own than will someone who governs through persuasion and consensus. The author therefore deplores the tendency for presidents or premiers to take personal credit for achievements properly attributable to their party or government—he is particularly hard on Tony Blair in this regard—and of media to emphasize the influence of these leaders at the expense of other senior ministers. Accessible if somewhat dry in tone, this wide-ranging survey of regimes from the early 20th century to the present illuminates the author's thesis by contrasting the governing styles of a host of such leaders as Mao Zedong and Margaret Thatcher, on the one hand, with those of Deng Xiaoping and Clement Attlee on the other. Occasionally, it seems that Brown was torn between writing solely to press his point about effective leadership and producing a scholarly and thus more inclusive survey of political leadership styles and results regardless of their relevance to his overall theme. A sure-handed historical review with an engaging viewpoint.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780465027668
  • Publisher: Basic Books
  • Publication date: 4/8/2014
  • Pages: 480
  • Sales rank: 273,609
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Archie Brown is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Oxford University and an Emeritus Fellow of St. Antony’s College, Oxford, where he was a Professor of Politics and Director of St. Antony’s Russian and East European Centre. In 2010 he received one of the three Diamond Jubilee Lifetime Achievement in Political Studies Awards. Brown is considered one of the foremost experts in Soviet and Communist politics, the Cold War, and political leadership, and has advised several political leaders, including Margaret Thatcher on the eve of Gorbachev’s first visit to Britain. The author or editor of over eighteen books, including The Gorbachev Factor and The Rise and Fall of Communism—both winners of the W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize for best political science book of the year—Brown lives in Oxford.
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