A couple years back, I gave a talk at Princeton on the indispensable role leaders play in successful Arab-Israeli negotiations.
A very smart professor from Turkey dismissed my argument as "reductionist," and wondered how I could have missed the broader societal and political forces responsible for success and failure. I simply responded that whatever her views on these matters, she herself hailed from a land in which one guy had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country's modern history. We left it at that.
Shoot me if you want, but I'm a sucker for the great man (and woman) theory of history. Yes, broad social, political, economic, and cultural structural forces shape and constrain what leaders can do. And yes, Marx was right: People make history; but rarely as they please. Indeed, we have a cartoonish view of leadership in which presidents or prime ministers articulate a vision and then through sheer will persuade us to buy it. That's not how it really works. Instead, a leader more often than not intuits and exploits an opportunity when the times or circumstances offer it up.
Still, individuals count -- big time. For my money, it's human agency -- certainly in matters of war, peace, and nation building -- that is responsible for pushing societies toward the abyss or rescuing them from it. Wherever you stand on this issue, scholar John Keegan's stunning assertion that the history of much of the twentieth century is the story of six men (Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Mao) simply can't be ignored.
So here we are in the second decade of the twenty-first century, a full eight decades after this bunch tried either to take over the world or save it. Where are the big, bold, ballsy leaders? Plenty of very bad guys have come and gone -- Pol Pot, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic -- and some larger-than-life good ones like Charles De Gaulle, Konrad Adenauer, Anwar Sadat, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Nelson Mandela. But by and large, today we face a leadership deficit of global proportions. Some might even say we're rudderless.
One hundred and ninety-three countries are represented at the United Nations, among them more than 80-plus democracies. Is there one leader of any of them whom we could honestly describe as great, heroic, inspirational, transformational -- the author of some incomparable and unparalleled achievement at home or on the world stage likely to be seen or remembered for the ages? There are courageous dissidents in China, and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi is indeed inspiring. But empowered leaders governing countries and directing change are harder to identify. Maybe we've entered the post-heroic era: tiny steps for tiny feet. And maybe that's not necessarily a bad thing.
But a look around makes you wonder about the quality and effectiveness of those leaders we do have. Forget the return of the greats we miss and the bad ones we don't want back. Do today's leaders have what it takes to deal with the problems and challenges at hand?