Henry Kissinger explains what he thinks makes great leadership

From The Economist

Leadership by Henry Kissinger

Whatever you think of Henry Kissinger, the 99-year-old former national security adviser and secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations has an elephantine memory and experience that makes it an important historical resource. In his latest book, Mr Kissinger, an unofficial adviser and friend to many presidents and prime ministers, considers how six leaders from the second half of the 20th century reoriented their countries and made a lasting impact on the world.

Mr Kissinger’s six are an eclectic bunch. Konrad Adenauer was the first post-war chancellor of West Germany. Charles de Gaulle saved France twice, first during the second world war, then at the time of the Algerian crisis. The author’s old boss, Richard Nixon, shook geopolitics with his opening to China before scandal brought him down. Anwar Sadat paid with his life for forging a lasting peace with Israel as Egypt’s president. Lee Kuan Yew made tiny Singapore one of the most prosperous places on Earth. And Margaret Thatcher reversed decades of British decline—while widening social and economic divisions—before being defenestrated by her party.

A project of this kind might have amounted to a series of brief eulogistic biographies of famous people. Much of the book will indeed be familiar to many readers—and at times the author’s willingness to glide over inconvenient truths is distasteful. He justifies Nixon’s covert bombing of Cambodia by the need to force the Vietnamese to negotiate. One of its consequences, the rise of the Khmers Rouges, merits a single sentence, which blames Congress for cutting off military aid to the Cambodian government. (Watergate, too, is downplayed.) De Gaulle’s extraordinary refusal to give credit to allies fighting and dying to liberate France nearly earns admiration. The controversy in which Thatcher almost revelled escapes all criticism.

The book is redeemed, and more, by the analytical framework in which each leader is examined, and by the author’s personal knowledge of his subjects. Moreover, the writing is always crisp and lucid, even when conveying arcane theories of international relations, such as the notion of “equilibrium” that defined Nixon’s foreign policy (and, by extension, Mr Kissinger’s).

Having seen so many leaders at close hand, Mr Kissinger understands the constraints they must acknowledge and bypass. Among these are “scarcity”, or the limits of their societies in terms of demography and economic heft; “temporality”, or the prevailing values, habits and attitudes of their times; “competition” from other states that have their own goals; and the “fluidity” of events, the pace of which can force decisions to be made on the basis of intuition and hypothesis. Leaders must traverse a tightrope from which they fall if they are either too timid or too bold.

In Mr Kissinger’s view, there are essentially two types of leader, the statesman and the prophet. Statesmen manipulate circumstances to their advantage, temper vision with wariness and work with the grain of societies until existing institutions need to be changed or confronted. Prophets are prepared, if not eager, to break with the past no matter the risk.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG notes that when Nixon resigned in 1974, he was one of the most reviled individuals in the United States, primarily to his conduct of the War in Vietnam. Nixon’s predecessor, Lyndon Johnson would have run as a close second to Nixon on the scale of reviled presidents.

When one reviews the mediocrities who were elected to the presidency during the latter part of the 19th Century, it is interesting that none were as reviled during or after their terms of office than Nixon was.