Do our Current World Leaders Live Up to the Greats of the Past?

About the author
Natalie Kulenicz, a History graduate of Magdalen College, Oxford, examines the issue of whether our current world leaders are as brilliant as the greats of the past — and indeed whether those greats were in fact as brilliant as we think.

Sir Winston Churchill

Even if we accept that the twenty-first century to date has hardly been a time of harmony between the world’s political leaders and those they govern, the past few months stand out as particularly sore.

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The anniversary of President Barack Obama’s re-election earlier this week saw his approval rating poised to hit an all-time low, according to a recent Gallup poll. Only 39% of Americans approve of the job Obama is doing, and 53% actively disapprove. Whilst we shouldn’t take approval polls at absolute face value, and must take the cyclical nature of political popularity into account, this statistic is damning. Obama has perhaps been unusually unlucky in recent months. Problems caused by the debate over intervention in Syria, the damaging government shutdown at the beginning of the month, and increased criticism of Obamacare — which has experienced a launch rife with technical problems — seem to have snowballed at once to give Obama a very gloomy anniversary indeed.

Image shows Angela Merkel, wearing a red jacket and smiling.
Angela Merkel responded with strong words to news that her phone had been hacked by the NSA.

He’s not just facing hostility from voters, either. At an EU summit held in Brussels at the beginning of this week, German Chancellor Angela Merkel responded to claims that her mobile phone had been hacked by the National Security Association in stern terms: “The United States of America and Europe face common challenges. We are allies. But such an alliance can only be built on trust. That’s why I repeat again: spying among friends, that cannot be.” Closer to home, the outlook for political leaders does not seem quite so bleak, with approval ratings for Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Milliband both having climbed after party conference season. But, even with an increased approval rating from 33% to 37% in the last month, Cameron’s popularity is hardly sky-high. And aside from the woes of specific politicians and parties, there remains wider concern about the general state of democracy in Britain, indicating that some have no hope for world leaders at all — see comedian Russell Brand’s appearance on Newsnight last week, followed by his piece in the Guardian, in which he claims that “we deserve more from our democratic system than the few derisory tidbits tossed from the carousel of the mighty, when they hop a few inches left or right. The lazily duplicitous servants of The City expect us to gratefully participate in what amounts to little more than a political hokey cokey where every four years we get to choose what colour tie the liar who leads us wears.” The divide certainly seems at its starkest at present.
In the midst of all this woe, does it not seem logical that the solutions for better government might lie in the premierships and presidencies of past ‘golden ages’? Well, no. Asking whether or not our current leaders ‘measure up’ to the leaders of the past, whilst an interesting historical assessment, is useless if we are looking for real answers to our political problems. Changing political realities, social and economic mores, and even to an extent, methods of government, make for a hopeless disparity between the politicians of today and those of yesteryear — even those in living memory. Furthermore — and it may seem obvious but is nevertheless worth emphasising — we have to scrutinise the legacies of these ‘past greats’ to assess how successful they really were.
Image is a button that reads, "Browse all History & Classics articles."Ask for the name of Britain’s greatest ever leader, and the answer is almost always Winston Churchill. In a 2012 survey conducted by BritainThinks entitled ‘What is Leadership?’, 55% of those asked deemed ‘being a great communicator’ to be the most important quality for leadership. Unsurprisingly, Churchill — arguably known foremost for his oration skills — came out on top, with 26% respondents selecting this quality as one of the three characteristics which most applied to him. David Cameron decidedly trailed, on 16%. Such is the general acceptance of Churchill’s superiority as a leader, that according to this poll, he consistently ranks among the top five figures on the three most important qualities for leadership, ‘having integrity’ and ‘being decisive’ joining ‘being a great communicator’ at the top of the tree. The study even features a ‘Churchill Index’ as a control to measure greatness of leadership, with contemporary leaders measured against him. But, whilst useful as an indicator of people’s perceptions of what makes a great leader, as well as their ability to assimilate popular interpretations, this study has limited use as a comparative tool when pitting current and past leaders against each other. Churchill was a leader in an all-encompassing world war, in a situation where the skills and abilities of leaders were forged and demonstrated in an entirely different context.

Image shows Churchill sitting in front of a CBC microphone in 1944.
Churchill was famed for his oratory.

Even if we — rightly — emphasise Churchill’s popularity during the throes of war, we mustn’t forget how quickly that popularity declined, even before the conflict ended. Churchill’s popularity has accurately been identified as inextricably linked with wartime sentiment and necessity, which is why he lost the General Election of 1945 in July of that year. The most commonly held reason for this loss, and it seems the most plausible, is that Churchill was perceived as a leader whose star was forged so specifically during war that he could not transpose his skills effectively to a peacetime society. Of course, Churchill enjoyed a second premiership from 1951-1955, but it was much weakened and barely effective in comparison with his earlier time in office, and ended with the inauspicious passing of the position to Anthony Eden, often voted the worst Prime Minister the country has ever had. With this in mind, the very importance of Churchill’s communication skills seems undermined, even during his own time.
Nevertheless, the emphasis on communication is interesting, and provides a clue to deciphering why hanging on to popular approval seems to be proving so difficult for our current world leaders. In a world where communication is easy and instant because of social networking infrastructure, it would logically follow that the communication barrier between leaders and the led would lessen. This seems to be a popular view amongst office holders at any rate, since, for example, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have official Twitter and Facebook accounts. However, the increased presence of world leaders in social media does not seem to have facilitated ‘great communication’ as much as they would have liked — perhaps because the instantaneous nature of such sites encourage over-exposure, and responses which are rushed, unconsidered, and often ill-informed. A salient example is David Cameron’s recent gaffe linked to Facebook’s recent announcement that it would allow users to post graphically violent videos as long as such violence is not being ‘celebrated’. The Prime Minister’s tweet in response to this statement read: “It’s irresponsible of Facebook to post beheading videos, especially without a warning. They must explain their actions to worried parents.” The first response, posted less than sixty seconds later, read “Facebook doesn’t post those videos. Users do. Do you understand how the internet works at all?” Cameron’s mistake in this instance was considerable, and displayed ignorance — even though it was a simple mistake. But it is difficult to ignore the fact that this story has been overblown in the press, and online. What the episode really demonstrates is a misunderstanding of the importance of this new platform for communication.

Image shows Clementine Churchill in 1915.
Churchill’s wife, Clementine, warned him to be kinder to his colleagues.

The reality is that this method for creating at least a semblance of proximity between the Prime Minister and the populace, at least in this case, backfired considerably. Looking back in the hope of comparison, and whilst it is important to bear in mind the resonant effect of his public speaking ability, it seems as though the comparative distance between Churchill and the populace made communication more select, and more of an event. And this simply must have been a benefit. In 1940 Clementine, Churchill’s wife, hesitantly wrote him a letter expressing concern for his manner and treatment of his colleagues. “There is a danger of your being generally disliked by your colleagues and subordinates because of your rough, sarcastic and overbearing manner…I must confess that I have noticed a deterioration in your manner and you are not so kind as you used to be.” Had this communication been played out against a backdrop in which social media was the norm, it seems likely that Churchill’s ill-chosen words might have damaged his image far more. This view also resonates in a Pew Centre study detailing popular trust in the U.S. government from 1958 to 2013. We see that approval peaked towards the end of Kennedy’s presidency, reaching an all-time low in 2011. Of course, I am not suggesting that such a specific example of a negative alteration in communication between the government and the populace was uniquely responsible for this stark downturn. But the pattern exists, and pursuing the abuse of platforms for communication as a line of investigation and analysis is interesting, and could prove extremely fruitful.
If we are currently attempting to analyse the real importance of political legacy, it seems prudent to consider the various ways in which legacies can be undermined. There seem to be two. The first, more straightforward method is the mainstay of historians — the application of recent evidence which can change a currently-held opinion of a political event, a society, or any kind of historical notion. The second, more interesting way, is the presence in contemporary sources of the legacies of leaders being undermined during their own time. Take William the Conqueror, for example — certainly not a universally liked or esteemed figure, but commonly held to be one of the ‘great’ leaders in our history, as a conquering king. Sources during his life give wildly differing interpretations of his popularity, but the most poignant indicator of the almost immediate demise of his legacy, at least in the eyes of contemporaries, is an account of his death in 1087, in Rouen. In Book VII of his Ecclesiastical History, Orderic Vitalis, an English chronicler and monk who was based at the Abbey of St. Evroul in Normandy, writes that as soon as the king died, his person and room were plundered for jewels and coin, and his body left “almost naked” on the floor. Even more tellingly, Orderic details William’s burial, where any illusive mystique of the departed king as a divinely appointed ruler crumbles away when a wronged knight turns up and claims that William had illegally requisitioned the ground in which he was buried, from his father. The nervous bishops hurriedly consult the evidence, and the knight is duly paid off. This is not the only indication of the inauspicious nature of William’s death — it is a well known legend that William’s corpulent body essentially burst when forced into his too-small coffin and the attending bishops had to cover the smell with incense and candles. But this lesser-known — and more damning — anecdote demonstrates both that William’s legacy was more chequered than popular opinion has historically held, and that those writing at the time of his death were at no pains to preserve his legacy.

Image shows a 1840 painting of Charlemagne receiving Widukind's surrender at Paderborn, by Ary Scheffer.
Like Alfred the Great, Charlemagne did not learn to read as a child.

Or take Charlemagne, the legendary Frankish ruler who lived during the eighth and ninth centuries, who has such a dominant legacy that since 1950 the Charlemagne Prize — or Karlspreis — has been awarded by the city of Aachen, the town where Charlemagne was anointed Emperor. This prize, in the words of Kurt Pfeiffer, the prize’s founder, is awarded to the person who has made the most valuable contribution in the services of Western European understanding and work for the community, and in the services of humanity and world peace. This contribution may be in the field of literary, scientific, economic or political endeavour.” Recipients include Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger, Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
Charlemagne’s influence on the shape of Europe as we recognise it now was considerable, wrought through extensive campaigns against the Avars, the Bulgars and the Visigoths. However, the rubric of the prize also refers to Charlemagne specifically as the “founder of Western culture”– an interesting assessment of a ruler who, according to his contemporary biographer Einhard, could not read. His Life of Charlemagne certainly testifies to his position as a founder of what we would see as Western culture, through ‘cultivating the liberal arts’ and making a concerted effort to learn Latin and Greek. But, whilst eloquent, Einhard points out in chapter 25 of his Life that “he…tried to write, and used to keep tablets and blanks in bed under his pillow, that at leisure hours he might accustom his hand to form the letters; however, as he did not begin his efforts in due season, but late in life, they met with ill success.’ So, whilst Charlemagne can rightly be held as one of the first promoters of European nationhood, the founders of the Karlspreis had to gloss over certain elements of his character to apply his prestige to a modern context.
Chartering the approval rates of politicians in living memory and investigating the mythologies surrounding ‘legendary’ leaders of the past is certainly a useful exercise. Doing so tells us about the changes in methodologies used to track opinions of world leaders, and it informs us about the values held by particular societies at particular times. But such a practice is of more help to historians and analysts than it is to politicians themselves. It is no use trying to hold up past ‘great’ leaders as models to be specifically emulated — even those in living memory, even if elements of their leadership or characters are considered to stand the test of time. There is no magic solution written in the history books, and pragmatism is underrated as an influencing factor in modern world leadership by those entirely led by ideals. Comparison can still be useful, and patterns should not be ignored. But the real danger emerges when we begin our analysis of present-day leaders from an assumption of decline.


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Image credits: banner; Merkel; Churchill; Clementine; Charlemagne.