We need to restore moral value to leadership. In whom do we now recognize and salute leaderly qualities? Who are representative of great leadership? What accounts for the growing diminution of standards of leadership?

“In the long run democracy will be judged,” writes Irving Babbitt in Democracy and Leadership (1924), “no less than other forms of government, by the quality of its leaders, a quality that will depend in turn on the quality of their vision.” Babbitt’s words should remind us that the need for leadership, always urgent, remains ever more urgent in our time. We have now reached a stage in history when the socio-political crisis of leadership goes hand-in-hand with what might be called the spiritual crisis of nihilism: that ultimate negation of moral principles of order and belief. In many ways this twin crisis is the offshoot of what Jacob Burckhardt was to speak of, with particular reference to the French Revolution, as the “authorization to perpetual revision.” In American society and culture, especially since the end of World War II, but going on throughout the twentieth century, we have seen an incessant revision of standards of leadership, as well as of American civilization itself, as leadership at all levels of national life has taken on specious forms.

Increasingly we have discarded standards of leadership that make for greatness and for that vision without which a civilization perishes. It is all too evident that many Americans do not relate confidently to the qualities that typify a great leader, one who, in Burckhardt’s words, “is the man of exceptional intellectual or moral power whose activity is directed to a general aim, that is, a whole nation, a whole civilization, humanity itself.” These are noble words, to be sure, and portray the noble aims of those who have “greatness of soul.” Burckhardt, of course, does not permit idealism to overshadow hard facts, hard realities, and he cautions us by emphasizing that the idea of greatness, both as benefactor and as beneficence, has intrinsic ambiguity, if not relativeness. “Greatness is all that we are not,” he emphasizes, if only to warn us that to find exemplary leadership is often problematic. We must always be prepared for disappointment and disillusionment in our search for a leader, given the human condition. Here, in any case, it is well to recall the admonition that we must have absolute standards and modest expectations. In the present time, when the lures of mediocrity inform human aspirations, as well as concepts of leadership, the desiderata that Burckhardt associates with great leaders merit close attention. Growing wings to overcome gravity, to evoke Plato’s wondrous image, is, or should be, a continual goal. Human culture and character advance, creatively and critically, only insofar as ascent is our purpose and effort. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” is an eternal question that the Psalmist asks of Man.

We must not allow ourselves to be misled by “terrible simplifiers” who would reduce human life and achievement to the lowest common denominator, even as we now see and experience the baleful results of this phenomenon in all facets of contemporary life. At the point when we no longer proclaim qualitative standards, subordinating them to socio-political agenda and expediency, we sink into the trough of mediocrity. If we are to avoid the awful costs of such a descendancy, we must, however unpopular and vulnerable our position may be, insist that standards of achievement, of life, of discrimination, should determine our range of awareness. If, too, we are not to be subsumed by the ant-hill of modern life, we must maintain at a maximal point a keen awareness of excellence, of criteria, of obligations – of greatness. Above all we must insist on those qualities of leadership that measure not so much practical success but rather the capacity for growth of insight and wisdom in terms of the moral life and the ethical life. To adopt a policy of silence or of neglect with regard to the higher metaphysical attributes of leadership, or to convert these attributes into exclusively equalitarian demands, and fallacies, trivializes the meaning of leadership. When and where standards are ignored, or scorned, or silenced, the consequences are injurious to civilization, to the polity, to governance. A morally impoverished society will produce morally impoverished leaders.

In whom do we now recognize and salute leaderly qualities? Who are representative of great leadership? What accounts for the growing diminution of standards of leadership, of “men of light and leading” who, for Edmund Burke, combine “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve”? One who dares to answer these questions in the light of current practices and habits is bound to notice both a general drifting of leadership and a shifting of standards. The process of deterioration and debasement, once begun, is difficult to arrest, particularly in a technologico- Benthamite society that respects neither moral determinants nor moral deterrents. Such a nullifying process is registered in the ways in which men and women today judge the nature, the mission and ethos, of leadership, and of leaders who are unfriendly to the venerable triad of reason, Scripture, and tradition. With the growing absence of standards and discipline of leadership one can also observe a commensurate absence of leaders capable of guiding the citizenry to a higher moral and in turn socio-political ground. As such, leadership itself is annexed by the market-place; it becomes its handmaiden and accomplice, complying with the prevailing climate of opinion and adapting itself to the whirl of the world. The idea of and the needs for leadership are thus reduced to a quantitative state, to a kind of emptiness, even entropy.

A tyranny of “quantitative reductionism,” as Father Stanley Jaki uses that term, afflicts an entire society and culture and conduces decay at all levels of life. Leadership itself, both as concept and as need, undergoes transmutation once the forces of reductionism take hold. The transcendent purpose and meaning of leadership are made relative as standards and expectations are minimized or scuttled. Clearly, the eclipse of the idea of excellence is directly reflected in the eclipse of the quality of leaders–and, too, of a people’s perception of representatives of leadership. This perception increasingly becomes a decadent one that cruelly excludes those canons of leadership that identify Ortega y Gasset’s “select man” of magnanimous words and work. Today our “representative men” inevitably mirror the consequences of “authorization to perpetual revisionism,” hostile to centrality, principle, discrimination, as well as to both the historical and the moral sense that provide the prudence and the virtue that restrict the force of barbarism. “Barbarism,” Ortega reminds us, “is the absence of norms and of any possible appeal based on them.”

Leadership that succumbs to “the absence of norms” in effect admits to a failure of nerve, the results of which are everywhere in evidence, as sham leaders come forth to fill the void. Still, the search for leadership does go on, but at lesser, surrogate levels. In a society in which qualities of leadership have receded and leaders exert no deep appeal to the heart, mind, and soul of the citizenry, the consequential vacuum must be filled to compensate for the absence or even the breakdown of leadership. When we fail to identify with the idea of leadership embodying prescriptive standards of virtue, character, conscience, of taste and sensibility–and of leaders who elevate us to a higher ground, and who, no less than great visionary poets, make men and women better citizens in their cities–we begin to accept inferior qualities, inferior leaders, inferior aspirations, inferior choices. Joseph Conrad, in his novel Nostromo, memorably renders this rhythm of disintegration among leaders who have “but a feeble and imperfect consciousness of the worth and force of the inner life.” Particularly in a democracy in which responsibility and freedom must strenuously interact, when the quality of leadership deteriorates there is a comparable deterioration in the actions of the led. It is precisely in the course of this deterioration that we can discern how the demand for and pursuit of leadership are prostituted, that is to say, exposed or subjected to a destructive agency or an impulse devoted to an unworthy or corrupt cause.

The results of this prostitution are all too visible and alarming, as fundamental qualities of leadership are subject more and more to revision, to deconstruction, to use here a word that enjoys much favor in the intellectual community. We reach the point, then, of trivializing the idea, and the ideal, of leadership, and proceed to manufacture multiple substitutes seemingly satisfying the human longing for leadership. That, too, public, and particularly political, leaders not only accommodate but also enact a general loss of standards further weakens the idea of leadership and heightens the atmosphere of cynicism and contempt in the “public square.” In a sense, the prostitution of the idea of leadership melds with the pursuit of leadership in non-discriminating ways and forms, opportunity abetted by social scientists and behaviorists, and by commercial and journalistic interests. The sharp decline, too, of the religious idea, even on the part of the religious themselves, adds significantly to the process of prostitution. Ultimately the crumbling of moral climate and spiritual terrain eventuates the crumbling of “the partnership between principle and process…the first fact of life and of our work,” to recall one of Lao Tzu’s famous sayings.

Any diminution of the moral sense and the discriminating faculty is bound to be pernicious to one’s capacity for the recognition, analysis, and measurement of leadership and of its representatives in all areas of human endeavor. And any detrition of standards of leadership must be accompanied by a confluent detrition of the character of leadership and in turn of our estimation of leader-types. Pseudo-leadership and pseudo-leaders characterize current conditions as more and more citizens confuse leadership with the cult of personality and the world of celebrities. Immoral and amoral conditions breed immoral and amoral tendencies. And the leveling or the absence of standards influences one’s view of leaders and of the qualities that they project and that, ostensibly, satisfy one’s hopes and desires. Our choice of leaders underscores the anomalous and, above all, the antinomian features of American life and character in the modern age. Doubtlessly, the scarcity of visionary political and intellectual leadership affects in drastic ways human judgment and selection. Choices are symptomatic of the corrosive tendencies of American civilization and polity as these are impelled by our obsession with change, usually to the detriment of the “permanent things,” it need hardly be said. Indeed, what most characterizes the conditions of our situation is a pattern, if not a pathology, of disorder.

This pattern of disorder determines our conceptions of leadership, and of the leaders we choose. Insight, wisdom, authority, faith, and fortitude are neither the virtues nor the values for which we necessarily seek or honor in leaders. We make standards subservient to a pluralistic and fragmented society, to Jacobin impulses and doctrines. Those whom we esteem and reward and follow often accede to the disorder-pattern besetting the life of the republic and the life of the soul; such leaders mirror public and private insolvency at the brink of chaos. They project precisely the traits and propensities of those who comprise the “anonymous mass” and who suffer from the malady that Walter Lippmann, in The Public Philosophy (1955), pinpoints in these words: “There is a profound disorientation in their experience, a radical disconnection between the notions of their minds and the needs of their souls.” Athletes, television stars, and entertainers, Hollywood actors and actresses, smatterers, rock and rap singers and musical groups, publicists, along with pseudo-artists, academics, and critics (la trahison des clercs) who command enormous attention and acclaim: they encompass the new secularist elite to whom we look for leadership; they set the standards, style, and taste of post-modern, post-managerial society; they become our sentinels of art and letters as they write a new lexicon of thrills and titillation.

What, then, can we say about the prospects of leadership? How can we expect great leadership to emerge from a disjointed culture, “rotten and rotting others”? Can we possibly produce genuine leaders in a society that accommodates or follows “the enemies of the permanent things”? Those who choose to answer these questions buoyantly ignore our present predicament. Nowhere is this predicament better epitomized than in the educational realm in which the canon lies in ruins and arrogant ideologues formulate with an iron fist entire areas of teaching, administration, texts, and policies. “All education today serves to prepare the individual for the world of disjointedness,” to recall here Max Picard’s observation. In this situation there is neither past nor future; the dogma of presentism thrives everywhere and makes it difficult for any true nourishment or birth of leadership. Hence we must measure realistically and sternly the prospects of leadership against existing realities.

And yet we also cannot be content with an attitude of “So be it!” or even to practice the despair in virile acceptance some existentialists preach. The possibility of ascent, however perilous it may be, is never extinct, as history has confirmed even in the worst of times and climes. Maintaining, in Eric Voegelin’s words, “conscious opposition of the well-ordered soul to the disorder of the society around it” is a major need. Recognizing, too, that political skill is not political wisdom and that political maneuvering is not political leadership, is still another major need. Indeed, we have to understand the limits of political leadership itself, neither romanticizing nor exaggerating its possibilities. We can only hope, as T.S. Eliot asserted not long after the end of World War II, that “there will always be situations in which one man, or a few men, will render a service to their society simply by standing alone in an unpopular opinion and telling their countrymen that they are wrong, with no hope of accomplishing anything except witnessing to the truth as they see it.”

In a profane age in which paradigms of leadership are not abundant, it is especially important to look first within the inner life of memory and continuity for those values and verities that the outer life has declared inoperative. No tyranny, collective or individual, can outlaw or eradicate the capacity for critical reflection. Of the need to reflect on the qualities and the state of leadership there can be no end. This is doubly true at a time when the subject of leadership seems to be the exclusive property of clever journalists, television celebrities, best-selling authors, political pundits, and pollsters who glibly spell out the function and constituents of leadership, with very little regard for its moral dimension and responsibilities.

It is worth noting that the twentieth century has variously excited significant reflections on the phenomenon of violence. For instance, Reflections on Violence (1908), by the French social theorist and “metaphysician of socialism,” Georges Sorel, argues the case for an “ethics of violence” and praises the role of violence as an agent of progress and amelioration. And from an opposing vantage point there is the celebrated essay entitled “The Iliad as a Poem of Force” (1940-1941), by the Christian Hellenist metaphysician of “the invisible Church,” Simone Weil, who sees violence as an example of demonic might that “makes a thing of man, for it makes him a corpse.” Such reflections on violence should definitely claim our consideration if we are to locate and resist its principalities and powers. But no less legitimate and no less necessary, we also have to reflect on the nature of leadership, and of leadership that can help us soar beyond the walls of violence within which life is often trapped. Surely the nexus between violence and leadership can hardly be escaped.

We need to restore moral value to leadership, and thus free it not only from its purely sociological and political contexts, but also from its empirical configurations. Leadership is yet another word that has been emptied of its hierarchical order and has experienced the same dismal fate of other words of absolute value–loyalty, nobility, virtue, goodness, generosity, honor. No less than these words, leadership relates to the struggle between good and evil. We need to save the meaning of leadership from the kind of devaluation that tears down the structure of language and, in effect, the structure of truth. When leadership is robbed of its metaphysical value, when it is detached from universal referents and specificity of standards, then leadership is stripped of its dignity. And when the idea of leadership falls into the realm of the vacuous, it honors no moral imperative and is absorbed by degraded conditions and oblique purposes.

In the order of human existence in society and history the problem of leadership is, and has always been, one that involves human destiny. More than at any time in history, and especially now as we are about to enter a new century, we have every reason to heed Edmund Burke’s warning: “We must have leaders. If none will undertake to lead us right, we shall find guides who will contrive to conduct us to shame and ruin.”

Republished with the gracious permission of Modern Age (Fall 1996).

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