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The Lost Art of Leadership : All the Emperors Seem Clothed in Naught but Ambition

July 12, 1987|HENRY F. GRAFF | Henry F. Graff, a professor of history at Columbia University, specializes in the presidency.

The willingness of the South Korean government to yield to the wave of demonstrations and riots and open the door to a popular election, as well as to other reforms, may well be read as a triumph of direct-action democracy.

Some people will even view President Chun Doo Hwan's announcement as an example of effective leadership, determinedly preventing the kind of scenario that unfolded in the Philippines last year. Others will say that Chun and his claque backed water shamefully, and violated one of the ironclad principles of successful leadership: Never display weakness or admit error. Their actions, at the least, bring to mind the sally of the Marine general in the Korean War who commanded the pullback from the Yalu River: "Hell, we're not retreating; we're just advancing in another direction!"

One thing is certain. While leadership, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, modern leaders everywhere now echo the French politician who, during the revolution of 1848, exclaimed of his supporters: "I have to follow this crowd because I am their leader."

All of which has impressive timeliness for the American scene, about to be convulsed by the 1988 race for the White House. Already the hopefuls are claiming to be "leaders," self-chosen though most of them are. Like William Pitt long ago, they proclaim: "I believe that I can save this nation, and that no one else can." And in warming up for the campaign they prate about the need for "new leadership" or for "continuity of leadership"--depending on which party they hope to speak for.

Campaign funds in inordinate amounts, however, will be expended on media experts who, with calipers and measuring tapes, will determine the "correct" positions to take on the leading questions of the day. Technicians connected to computers, not to the ballot box, will decide which proposals must be offered in Congress after the election because "their time has come." Ineluctably, leadership and public opinion are merging into a single mushy mass.

What happens, in consequence, to the ancient truth that republican government works properly only when what the people desire and what they require coincide? Which office-seeker will stand up and cry out for the things that the good society needs? In this era of advancing democracy, despite high-sounding pledges, we blithely face our imperatives stuck with the spirit of what Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge wrote to Theodore Roosevelt, his friend in the White House, during the damaging coal strike of 1902: "Is there nothing we can appear to do?"

Because popularity is the chief psychic reward of democratic leaders, they are constantly measuring the price that they must pay for it. The same Roosevelt, a maker of the modern presidency, refused to deal forthrightly with another nagging question--the tariff. Leaving the matter to his successor, he explained, "I do not wish to end my Administration under a more or less dark cloud."

Leadership therefore has its limits, even for politicians with faithful followers. President Reagan's fall from grace as noted in public opinion polls is apparently owing to the fact that although the people like, even love, their chief, they do not believe him. Trust being an essential of leadership, he comes up short.

Disingenuousness, from time immemorial a staple of chiefship everywhere, is being made obsolete by television and investigative reporting. Suddenly throughout the world all the emperors have no clothes.

In the United States the continual use by presidential candidates of John F. Kennedy as a model may be sentimentally attractive to part of the public, but the model is in fact an anachronism. The meticulous cultivation of "image," which Kennedy elevated to a high art, is no longer effective as an instrument for governance. Everybody knows that candidates are professionally "packaged," their positions on issues constantly refined and remolded even, if need be, in violation of private convictions. Voters may want to recall that Abraham Lincoln was once the model for presidential hopefuls. The qualities of character that he possessed were reduced by would-be successors to copying how he looked. As a result, a generation of Presidents who came after him wore beards or mustaches or both, but the price that the country paid in flawed and failed leadership was immense.

Appearance aside, leadership is based on the ability to persuade, which is based in turn on a conveyed sense of integrity, character and justice in the leader. "Trust the people!" was Winston Churchill's watchword.

But the rub is that the people look for guidance. They may take to the streets when they're outraged, but they cannot stay there forever. Moreover, inured to modern entertainment, the people expect their leaders to be interesting men and women, not merely wise ones. It was said of Louis Philippe, who was made king of the French in 1830, that he fell because he bored the nation.

There are worse defects in a ruler than being a bore. Still, candidates will have to know as they prepare for the turnover of power in 1989 that the electorate has been sensitized by fresh awarenesses as well as new yearnings, which will have a formidable but unpredictable impact on the outcome of the contest now forming.

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