The Motivations of Leaders

Winston Churchill, in the third volume of The Second World War, offers several brief asides that betray a quizzical fact about his character. Within several pages of one another, Churchill praises the suicide of the Hungarian Count Teleki and of Greek Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis as preserving the honor of their nations. A few pages later Churchill offers the thought that the British and Greek armies could make a heroic stand at Thermopylae, the site of a famous last stand in Ancient Greek history. Churchill’s naive notions of chivalric heroism are apparent in many of his famous speeches to the Houses of Parliament as well. Truly a man for the moment, Churchill wanted desperately to live out his dream of knightly heroism and often saw mass, industrialized slaughter as a worthy opportunity. His desire for an almost literary form of heroism (along with an ample amount of amoral Realpolitik) enabled his ascent to the pinnacle of the history of British leadership.

Vaulting ambition, the insatiable desire for power, is a well-known facet of great political leaders. But it is often this attribute with a mixture of a desire for praise and distinction that creates truly great leaders. John Adams, founding father and second American President, wrote:

“Every personal quality, and every blessing of fortune, is cherished in proportion to its capacity of gratifying this universal affection for the esteem, the sympathy, the admiration and congratulations of the public…”

He goes on to assert that government has the function of regulating these desires. This is important because it helps us to understand the process of government and of those who govern. Legislation passed and actions taken are not necessarily to solve some public issue, but to gain the esteem and adulation of the public. It also helps clarify the ends of different leaders. For instance, President Obama wishes to have a powerful liberal legacy, built on sizable achievements. He is not just seeking the moderate respect of the crowd but lionization in the historical record. That is why he was willing to forgo chances at prolonged cooperation with Republicans on lesser issues and instead focused on tremendous ones, like the Affordable Care Act, and the changes wrought by the stimulus bill.

When we better understand the psychological and emotional motives of or most consequential leaders, it provides a framework for understanding their actions.

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