The Axes of Leadership

Whatever their personal characteristics or modes of action, leaders inevitably confront an unrelenting challenge: preventing the demands of the present from overwhelming the future. Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their visions.

12 mins read
Henry A. Kissinger Chairman, Kissinger Associates Inc.

Following excerpts adapted from the author’s most recent book, The Leadership, published by Penguin Random House

Any society, whatever its political system, is perpetually in transit between a past that forms its memory and a vision of the future that inspires its evolution. Along this route, leadership is indispensable: decisions must be made, trust earned, promises kept, a way forward proposed. Within human institutions – states, religions, armies, companies, schools – leadership is needed to help people reach from where they are to where they have never been and, sometimes, can scarcely imagine going. Without leadership, institutions drift, and nations court growing irrelevance and, ultimately, disaster.

Leaders think and act at the intersection of two axes: the first, between the past and the future; the second, between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead. Their first challenge is analysis, which begins with a realistic assessment of their society based on its history, mores, and capacities. Then they must balance what they know, which is necessarily drawn from the past, with what they intuit about the future, which is inherently conjectural and uncertain. It is this intuitive grasp of direction that enables leaders to set objectives and lay down a strategy.

For strategies to inspire the society, leaders must serve as educators – communicating objectives, assuaging doubts and rallying support. While the state possesses by definition the monopoly of force, reliance on coercion is a symptom of inadequate leadership; good leaders elicit in their people a wish to walk alongside them. They must also inspire an immediate entourage to translate their thinking so that it bears upon the practical issues of the day. Such a dynamic surrounding team is the visible complement of the leader’s inner vitality; it provides support for the leader’s journey and ameliorates the dilemmas of decision. Leaders can be magnified – or diminished – by the qualities of those around them.

The vital attributes of a leader in these tasks, and the bridge between the past and the future, are courage and character – courage to choose a direction among complex and difficult options, which requires the willingness to transcend the routine; and strength of character to sustain a course of action whose benefits and whose dangers can be only incompletely glimpsed at the moment of choice. Courage summons virtue in the moment of decision; character reinforces fidelity to values over an extended period.

Leadership is most essential during periods of transition, when values and institutions are losing their relevance, and the outlines of a worthy future are in controversy. In such times, leaders are called upon to think creatively and diagnostically: what are the sources of the society’s well-being? Of its decay? Which inheritances from the past should be preserved, and which adapted or discarded? Which objectives deserve commitment, and which prospects must be rejected no matter how tempting? And, at the extreme, is one’s society sufficiently vital and confident to tolerate sacrifice as a waystation to a more fulfilling future?

the nature of leadership decisions

Leaders are inevitably hemmed in by constraints. They operate in scarcity, for every society faces limits to its capabilities and reach, dictated by demography and economy. They also operate in time, for every era and every culture reflects its own prevailing values, habits and attitudes that together define its desired outcomes. And leaders operate in competition, for they must contend with other players – whether allies, potential partners or adversaries – who are not static but adaptive, with their own distinct capacities and aspirations. Moreover, events often move too quickly to allow for precise calculation; leaders have to make judgments based on intuitions and hypotheses that cannot be proven at the time of decision. Management of risk is as critical to the leader as analytical skill.

‘Strategy’ describes the conclusion a leader reaches under these conditions of scarcity, temporality, competition and fluidity. In finding the way ahead, strategic leadership may be likened to traversing a tightrope: just as an acrobat will fall if either too timid or too audacious, a leader is obliged to navigate within a narrow margin, suspended between the relative certainties of the past and the ambiguities of the future. The penalty for excessive ambition – what the Greeks called hubris – is exhaustion, while the price for resting on one’s laurels is progressive insignificance and eventual decay. Step by step, leaders must fit means to ends and purpose to circumstance if they are to reach their destinations.

The leader-as-strategist faces an inherent paradox: in circumstances that call for action, the scope for decision-making is often greatest when relevant information is at its scantiest. By the time more data become available, the margin of maneuver tends to have narrowed. Amid the early phases of a rival power’s strategic arms buildup, for example, or in the sudden appearance of a novel respiratory virus, the temptation is to regard the emerging phenomenon as either transitory or manageable by established standards. By the time the threat can no longer be denied or minimized, the scope for action will have constricted or the cost of confronting the problem may have grown exorbitant. Misuse time, and limits will begin to impose themselves. Even the best of the remaining choices will be complex to execute, with reduced rewards for success and graver risks in failure.

This is when the leader’s instinct and judgment are essential. Winston Churchill understood it well when he wrote in The Gathering Storm (1948): ‘Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in mist, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.’[

In May 1953, an American exchange student asked Churchill how one might prepare to meet the challenges of leadership. ‘Study history. Study history,’ was Churchill’s emphatic reply. ‘In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.’ Churchill was himself a prodigious student and writer of history who well understood the continuum within which he was working.

But knowledge of history, while essential, is not sufficient. Some issues remain forever ‘veiled in mist’, forbidding even to the erudite and experienced. History teaches by analogy, through the ability to recognize comparable situations. Its ‘lessons’, however, are in essence approximations which leaders are tested to recognize and are responsible for adapting to the circumstances of their own time. The early twentieth-century philosopher of history Oswald Spengler captured this task when he described the ‘born’ leader as ‘above all a valuer – a valuer of men, situations, and things . . . [with the ability] to do the correct thing without “knowing” it’.

Strategic leaders need also the qualities of the artist who senses how to sculpt the future using the materials available in the present. As Charles de Gaulle observed in his meditation on leadership, The Edge of the Sword (1932), the artist ‘does not renounce the use of his intelligence’ – which is, after all, the source of ‘lessons, methods, and knowledge’. Instead, the artist adds to these foundations ‘a certain instinctive faculty which we call inspiration’, which alone can provide the ‘direct contact with nature from which the vital spark must leap’.

Because of the complexity of reality, truth in history differs from truth in science. The scientist seeks verifiable results; the historically informed strategic leader strives to distill actionable insight from inherent ambiguity. Scientific experiments support or cast doubt on previous results, presenting scientists with the opportunity to modify their variables and repeat their trials. Strategists are usually permitted only one test; their decisions are typically irrevocable. The scientist thus learns truth experimentally or mathematically; the strategist reasons at least partly by analogy with the past – first establishing which events are comparable and which prior conclusions remain relevant. Even then, the strategist must choose analogies carefully, for no one can, in any real sense, experience the past; one can only imagine it as if ‘by the moonlight of memory’, in the phrase of the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga.

Meaningful political choices rarely involve a single variable; wise decisions require a composite of political, economic, geographical, technological and psychological insights, all informed by an instinct for history. Writing at the end of the twentieth century, Isaiah Berlin described the impossibility of applying scientific thinking beyond its remit and, consequently, the enduring challenge of the strategist’s craft. He held that the leader, like the novelist or landscape painter, must absorb life in all its dazzling complexity:

what makes men foolish or wise, understanding or blind, as opposed to knowledgeable or learned or well informed, is the perception of [the] unique flavors of each situation as it is, in its specific differences – of that in it wherein it differs from all other situations, that is, those aspects of it which make it insusceptible to scientific treatment.

six leaders in their context

It is the combination of character and circumstance which creates history, and the six leaders profiled in these pages – Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher – were all shaped by the circumstances of their dramatic historical period. They all then also became architects of the postwar evolution of their societies and the international order. I had the good fortune to encounter all six at the height of their influence and to work intimately with Richard Nixon. Inheriting a world whose certainties had been dissolved by war, they redefined national purposes, opened up new vistas and contributed a new structure to a world in transition.

Each of the six leaders, in his or her way, passed through the fiery furnace of the ‘Second Thirty Years’ War’ – that is, the series of destructive conflicts stretching from the beginning of the First World War in August 1914 to the end of the Second World War in September 1945. Like the first Thirty Years’ War, the second began in Europe but bled into the larger world. The first transformed Europe from a region where legitimacy was derived from religious faith and dynastic inheritance to an order based on the sovereign equality of secular states and bent on spreading its precepts around the globe. Three centuries later, the Second Thirty Years’ War challenged the entire international system to overcome disillusionment in Europe and poverty in much of the rest of the world with new principles of order.

Europe had entered the twentieth century at the peak of its global influence, imbued with the conviction that its progress over the previous centuries was certain – if not destined – to be unending. The continent’s populations and economies were growing at an unprecedented rate. Industrialization and increasingly free trade had midwifed historic prosperity. Democratic institutions existed in nearly every European country: dominant in Britain and France, they were underdeveloped but gaining in relevance in Imperial Germany and Austria, and incipient in pre-revolutionary Russia. The educated classes of early twentieth-century Europe shared with Lodovico Settembrini, the liberal humanist in Thomas Mann’s novel The Magic Mountain, the faith that ‘things were taking a course favorable to civilization’.

This utopian view reached its apotheosis in the English journalist Norman Angell’s bestselling 1910 treatise The Great Illusion, which held that growing economic interdependence among the European powers had rendered war prohibitively expensive. Angell proclaimed ‘man’s irresistible drift away from conflict and towards cooperation’. This and many other comparable predictions would be exploded in short order – perhaps most notably Angell’s claim that it was ‘no longer possible for any government to order the extermination of a whole population, of the women and children, in the old Biblical style’.

The First World War exhausted treasuries, terminated dynasties and shattered lives. It was a catastrophe from which Europe has never fully recovered. By the signing of the armistice agreement on November 11, 1918, nearly 10 million soldiers and 7 million civilians had been killed. Of every seven soldiers who had been mobilized, one never returned. Two generations of the youth of Europe had been depleted – young men killed, young women left widowed or alone, countless children orphaned.

While France and Britain emerged victorious, both were exhausted and politically fragile. Defeated Germany, shorn of its colonies and gravely indebted, oscillated between resentment of the victors and internal conflict among its competing political parties. The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires both collapsed, while Russia experienced one of the most radical revolutions in history and now stood outside any international system.

During the interwar years, democracies faltered, totalitarianism marched, and privation stalked the continent. The martial enthusiasms of 1914 having long since subsided, Europe greeted the outbreak of the Second World War in September 1939 with premonition tinged with resignation. And, this time, the world at large shared in Europe’s suffering. From New York, the Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden would write:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odor of death

Offends the September night.

Auden’s words proved prescient. The human toll exacted by the Second World War ran to no fewer than 60 million lives, primarily concentrated in the Soviet Union, China, Germany and Poland. By August 1945, from Cologne and Coventry to Nanjing and Nagasaki, cities had been reduced to rubble through shelling, aerial bombing, fire and civil conflict. The shattered economies, widespread famine and exhausted populations left in the war’s wake were daunted by the costly tasks of national reconstitution. Germany’s national standing, almost its very legitimacy, had been obliterated by Adolf Hitler. In France, the Third Republic had collapsed under the impact of the Nazi assault of 1940 and was, by 1944, only just beginning its recovery from that moral void. Of the major European powers, Great Britain alone had preserved its prewar political institutions, but it was effectively bankrupt and would soon have to deal with the progressive loss of its empire and persistent economic distress.

On each of the six leaders profiled in this book, these upheavals left an indelible mark. The political career of Konrad Adenauer (born 1876), who served as mayor of Cologne from 1917 to 1933, would include the interwar conflict with France over the Rhineland as well as the rise of Hitler; during the Second World War, he was twice imprisoned by the Nazis. Beginning in 1949, Adenauer shepherded Germany past the lowest point of its history by abandoning its decades-long quest for domination of Europe, anchoring Germany in the Atlantic Alliance, and rebuilding it on a moral foundation which reflected his own Christian values and democratic convictions.

Charles de Gaulle (born 1890) spent two and a half years during the First World War as a prisoner of war in Wilhelmine Germany; in the Second, he initially commanded a tank regiment. Then, after the collapse of France, he rebuilt the political structure of France twice – the first time in 1944 to restore France’s essence, and the second time in 1958 to revitalize its soul and prevent civil war. De Gaulle guided France’s historical transition from a defeated, divided and overstretched empire to a stable, prosperous nation-state under a sound constitution. From that basis, he restored France to a significant and sustainable role in international relations.

Richard Nixon (born 1913) took from his experience in the Second World War the lesson that his country had to play an enhanced role in the emerging world order. Despite being the only US president to resign from office, between 1969 and 1974 he modified the superpower tensions of the high Cold War and led the United States out of the conflict in Vietnam. In the process, he put American foreign policy on a constructive global footing by opening relations with China, beginning a peace process that would transform the Middle East and emphasizing a concept of world order based on equilibrium.

Two of the leaders discussed in these pages experienced the Second World War as colonial subjects. Anwar Sadat (born 1918), as an Egyptian army officer, was imprisoned for two years for attempting in 1942 to collaborate with German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel in expelling the British from Egypt and then for three years, much of it in solitary confinement, after the assassination of the pro-British former Finance Minister Amin Osman. Long animated by revolutionary and pan-Arab convictions, Sadat was projected, in 1970, by the sudden death of Gamal Abdel Nasser into the presidency of an Egypt that had been shocked and demoralized by defeat in the 1967 war with Israel. Through an astute combination of military strategy and diplomacy, he then endeavored to restore Egypt’s lost territories and self-confidence while securing long-elusive peace with Israel with a transcendent philosophy.

Lee Kuan Yew (born 1923) narrowly escaped execution by the occupying Japanese in 1942. Lee shaped the evolution of an impoverished, multiethnic port city at the edge of the Pacific, surrounded by hostile neighbors. Under his tutelage, Singapore emerged as a secure, well-administered and prosperous city-state with a shared national identity providing unity amid cultural diversity.

Margaret Thatcher (born 1925) huddled with her family around the radio listening to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime broadcasts during the Battle of Britain. In 1979, Thatcher inherited in Britain a former imperial power permeated by an air of weary resignation over the loss of its global reach and the decline of its international significance. She renewed her country through economic reform and a foreign policy that balanced boldness with prudence.

From the Second Thirty Years’ War, all six leaders drew their own conclusions as to what had led the world astray, alongside a vivid appreciation of the indispensability of bold – and aspirational – political leadership. The historian Andrew Roberts reminds us that, although the most common understanding of ‘leadership’ connotes inherent goodness, leadership ‘is in fact completely morally neutral, as capable of leading mankind to the abyss as to the sunlit uplands. It is a protean force of terrifying power’ that we must strive to orient toward moral ends.

Click here t order your copy of this book

Henry Kissinger

Henry Kissinger served as National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford and has advised many other American presidents on foreign policy. He received the 1973 Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Medal of Liberty, among other awards. He is the author of numerous books on foreign policy and diplomacy and is currently the chairman of Kissinger Associates, Inc., an international consulting firm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Latest from Blog