Nathan Gardels is the editor of Noema Magazine.
“A world ends when its metaphor is dead,” poet Archibald MacLeish once said. It is at this moment of transition from breaking old patterns of apprehending reality to constructing a new metaphor that leadership matters most.
The break can be accompanied by a groan, in which a way of seeing the world finally succumbs to the entropy of the old-fashioned. Or it can come with a bang, like a devastating war. The daunting challenge, in both cases, is how to convincingly frame the changing spirit of the times in a way that organizes the energy and direction of society into a force field that propels it on a new path.
In his latest book, “Leadership: Six Lessons in World Strategy”, Henry Kissinger examines several instances over the past century where, he says, key figures have risen admirably. He distinguishes how two types of leaders – the “statesman” and the “prophet” – face challenges differently.
The statesman “tempers” visions of change with a realistic understanding of political and economic constraints as he seeks to open space for evolution while preserving his society “by manipulating circumstances rather than letting overwhelmed by them”. On the other hand, the prophet, or visionary, “treats the dominant institutions less from the point of view of the possible” than from a vision of the imperative to change the very definition of the possible.
For Kissinger, the best leaders who made the most difference flexibly shaped an “optimal mix” that successfully overcame constraints to realize new possibilities through evolutionary stability. It brings to mind the old adage that without vision people suffer; with a vision not tempered by recognition of the realities on the ground, more people suffer. Think of Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
The two personalities that stand out in his book are Charles De Gaulle and Lee Kuan Yew. (Others, less convincing to me, include Konrad Adenauer, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat and Margaret Thatcher.)
De Gaulle: Existentialist Of The Nation
Jean-Paul Sartre, most famous for the ‘existentialist’ philosophy that ‘men are free to invent their own destiny’, captured the mood of his day that all possibilities were open after the World War had wiped the slate clean.
De Gaulle did not sit doodling in Café Deux Magots or hang out in the basement jazz clubs of the time like Sartre. He lived in the halls of power at the Elysée or rested quietly in the small village of Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises, devoted to his wife and children, in particular his daughter, who has Down syndrome. Yet, as Kissinger’s excellent profile makes clear, de Gaulle was, in fact, the nation’s leading existentialist. By force of will and personality, he invented the destiny of post-war France.
Exiled at the start of the war without troops and few supporters, de Gaulle unilaterally proclaimed himself the leader of Free France. In the final days of the war, even as the battles with the Germans still raged, he victoriously walked the Champs-Élysées as a symbol of those noble souls who, carrying the greatness of France within them, refused to stand submit to Nazi aggression. Capitalizing on this reputation once in power, he proposed “a certain idea of France” which, though loosely defined, asserted and confidently cultivated that lost sense of grandeur which had been buried in the national psyche by the humiliation of surrender and occupation.
Above all, it is De Gaulle’s persevering insistence that the French take their destiny into their own hands and become the author of their destiny once again that revives the national spirit.
Régis Debray, the philosopher and former friend of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, understood better than anyone the narrative power of the metaphor deployed by the French leader. “The myth makes the people, not the people the myth,” he said. writing on the provenance of De Gaulle’s influence.
Lee Kuan Yew: A nation without a hinterland
At the height of post-colonialism in 1963, Lee Kuan Yew sought to safeguard tiny Singapore’s newfound independence from Britain by proposing a federation with Malaysia. Although “economics, geography and kinship” logically dictated such a sensible arrangement, it unraveled within two years due to ethnic tensions and nationalist intrigues. In 1965, Malaysia got rid of its neighbor.
As the desperate Lee said after the split, Singapore would now have to figure out how to survive as a “heart without a body”. The city-state at the tip of the Malay Peninsula had few resources to thrive on its own. Literally, there was no hinterland.
Lee had the imagination to reconceptualize Singapore with a new metaphor: the first globalized nation. The Cambridge-educated lawyer overcame the hurdle by turning the whole world into the island nation’s hinterland.
In 30 years, he transformed Singapore from a third-party to a first-world country through open trade, investment and finance policies where global businesses could be assured of the rule of law and integrity. lack of corruption. He settled ethnic tensions by securing rights and opportunities for all Chinese, Indians and Malays, including the provision of housing, which cemented the allegiance of various citizens to the system. It made English the common language, binding Singaporeans together while connecting them to the world then dominated by Anglo-Saxon powers.
Lee paid attention to every detail, insisting when he was prime minister on a weekly report on the cleanliness of toilets at the airport where foreigners get their first impressions upon landing. Relentlessly innovating, Lee has always sought to learn how others do things in order to adapt best practices. Part socialist, Confucian, Victorian and liberal, he had no theory beyond the pragmatism of what worked.
As a statesman, he would finely balance American influence in the Pacific and the power of rising China, both welcoming the US Navy to Singapore ports while advising Deng Xiaoping on how to achieve a openness to the West while preserving “Asia”. way.” Western leaders avidly sought out Lee’s perspective on how China works, just as the Chinese listened to his critical insights about the West. He became a go-to interlocutor with antipodal civilizations.
Kissinger viewed Lee as both a statesman and a prophet who “invented Singapore from his vision of the future and wrote its history as it went”.
Emptiness is not empty
Leaders such as De Gaulle and Lee are struck in difficult circumstances. Today we have many of the latter but very few of the former.
Kissinger’s book serves to highlight the dearth of those transformative leaders in our time who have a vision of where to go combined with the motivated will, the innovative mind, the political chops and the shrewd diplomatic skills to get there. .
In this vacuum, figures like Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, skilled in their own brand of leadership, are setting the course and consolidating their grip.