Stuff

An Essay On What It Is to Be a Leader

There might be some slots coming up after Boris' nightmare interview.

Jeremy Fernando

It seems that, for Boris Johnson, Lent was one week too long. Seemingly eager to crucify himself, he turned in a disastrous interview with Eddie Mair the previous Sunday on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. And as the British public come to terms with Johnson’s spectacular self-inflicted wreck, the realisation of what kinds of leaders they have continues to haunt them. After all, Johnson was elected – chosen – by Londoners in a free and fair election, so it's not as if they can hide behind the excuse of coercion.

Which means that the more accurate question – and this might precisely be why it plagues Britain so – is: What kind of leaders are we choosing? This, added to the growing accusations of betrayals and of collusions with oppressive regimes, from – among others – Abdel Hakim Belhaj and those involved in the struggle against former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi, brings up the question of the relationship between those who lead a country and those who vote them into power. 

And, more importantly, why is it that we seem to be so annoyed with our leaders – the very ones we’ve chosen ourselves?

The loudest critique is that leaders abuse their positions as leaders. That even though they're in a position to direct, even though they're put in positions that could readily benefit themselves, they should know better. Which translates to: Being a leader means that one is above mere feelings. There is, of course, nothing new in this criticism. Each time a person in public office falls from grace, what they are accused off is falling prey to their own desires as humans; a regression from one who has been elevated into a particular position or role to merely being a person again.

Take Andrew Mitchell, the victim of plebgate. Even after the alleged evidence against the government's former chief whip was called into question, the mere fact that he might have uttered the word "plebs" – or, even better, looked like the kind of person who would have said it – is held against him. His resignation amid the media furore, regardless of the facts, would suggest this. The fact that everybody also missed the point that Mitchell refused a lawful instruction – to use a different gate – should not be lost on us either, for this suggests that this is no longer a case where what actually happened matters. What seems to be at stake is whether a leader is able to separate the position from the self. In other words, if one is a leader, one has to be other from one’s self.

In Mitchell's case, regardless of how he felt – after all, one would be hard pressed to completely disagree with his case that the police should be there to assist rather than deter his movements – he should have been able to bottle it and say only what a man in his public position would. Thus, a good leader is one who is able to divorce themselves from their role – upon assuming their mantle as leader, they should be able to become non-human, losing every semblance of personal emotion humans normally have.  


Andrew Mitchell with ex-President of Chile, Michelle Bachelet. Photo courtesy of the Department for International Development.

Whether this is realistic or not is beside the point: the fact that the public continues to be shocked each time this happens suggests it is a fantasy that is expected to be maintained. In his piece, "Plebgate was never about Tory toffs", Geoffrey Wheatcroft argues that the incident captured our attention as it “revealed our prejudices”; in particular that “a deplorable number of people – including journalists, who are meant to be natural sceptics – had been ready to believe a patently implausible story, because Mitchell is a well-heeled, expensively educated Tory and because ‘it was the kind of thing he would have said’”. 

Unfortunately Wheatcroft’s ending – “after decades of fawning on the police and truckling to the federation, our politicians might finally take a stand and take them on” – his call to arms, as it were, misses the point. For at stake were “prejudices” and the police, but not in the way that he claims. Rather, it is our policing of our own prejudices – the lengths to which we would go to protect the illusions that govern our lives – that is revealed here. Our need to preserve the fantasy of our leaders as being somehow different to us is such that we'd believe the very people we'd never usually trust in this case: the police.

Which might be why Mair’s reminder to Boris, that “The Times let you go after you made up a quote,” might be the most damning indictment of Johnson. At first glance, it might be surprising that fabricating quotes about the life of a late 13th century aristocrat would take precedence over lying about an affair or, even worse, giving out a phone number so that a potential violent crime could occur. Simon Hoggart captures this sentiment perfectly: “I can understand why he shouldn't have lied to Michael Howard or helped a friend who wanted to beat up a journalist. But how could a 'sandpapered' quote about Edward II's lover get a man sacked in the late 20th century?” 

But this is where Hoggart fails to see that it's this seemingly unconnected act that reveals the most: that Johnson would go to any lengths to write his own narrative. Perhaps what we should pay most attention to is the fact that, of the three things the Mayor of London is accused of, it is the one that occurred in his capacity as a private citizen that's currently a stain on his public career; a career that has thus far been characterised perfectly by a colleague of mine, Dr Lim Lee Ching: “If you want to see what bulletproof Teflon looks like, you just have to look at Boris Johnson’s political career.”

The irony here that, in an alleged democracy, the private sphere is expected to be subsumed beneath the public – the very hallmark of fascism – should not be lost on us. For, as we've learned from Stalin, the moment appearances are ruptured, reality itself collapses. It's not just that one has to agree with Stalin all the time, one also has to maintain the illusion that free discourse is possible; otherwise the fantasy that Stalin has been freely chosen to lead the people – that he is the first servant, as it were – is destroyed. And the whole game comes crumbling down.


Lord Sebastian Coe, Boris Johnson and David Cameron at the World Economic Forum. Photo by Moritz Hager.

Perhaps this is why the public is harshest on the ones who call themselves “public servants”. Their fall from grace only serves to remind everyone else that, if the alleged best that was on offer is that bad, what does that say about everyone else and, even worse, what does it say about ourselves? This might be why Silvio Berlusconi’s non sequitur of a defence – “I’m no Saint” – rankles everyone so badly. Not because it's not true, but because he's being absolutely honest. And it's this brutal candour that ruptures our illusions.

The importance of keeping up appearances is appreciated fully by the incumbent party in Singapore, which is why any party member who is deemed to have transgressed (no matter how irrelevant the transgression in relation to their job-scope or role as a politician) is made to resign. Take, for example, the recent scandal involving the then Speaker of Parliament, Michael Palmer. After admitting to an extra marital affair, Palmer resigned both from his role as Speaker and also as a Member of Parliament, even though the affair had nothing to do with his actual roles, nor his abilities to perform them.

In his resignation, Palmer refers to the affair as a “grave mistake”; highlighting the fact that the gravity lies not so much in one’s ability to do a job but in how one is perceived. In fact, you could even argue that the ability to do the job is almost less important than maintaining the image of faultlessness. One could also open the consideration of the fact that Palmer had recognised that it's impossible to divorce the person from the position; not just in the sense that the position maketh the man, but that the person, the self, infects the position itself.

Thus, the illusion that a leader is non-human must be maintained, particularly in a technocratic society where everything running like clockwork, as a machine, is the fantasy.

Which brings us back to the beginning and, in particular, the accusations of collusion and collaboration with the Gaddafi regime. It's not as if accusations of these kind are anything new: no one seems to mind the fact that in order to win the Second World War the alliance included Stalin, one of the most notorious mass murderers of all time. Which is not to say that the number of people murdered should be any basis of judgement. But the question remains: why is it that associations with particular kinds of leaders raises the ire of the public more than others?  


Gaddafi in a happier, more alive time. Photo by Ricardo Stuckert.

Perhaps it is the fact that Muammar Gaddafi exposes the illusion of the leader more than others; in the precise sense that the notion of a leader itself – the notion of the one who shows the way – is the very illusion that must be preserved. Here, we must not forget that the leader is the one who guides, so the very action of the leader is what matters. This might well be why the figure of the one who is certain, who commands respect, is the archetypal leader. And this is why Winston Churchill still holds a place in the hearts of many; the leader is not so much a person of thought, consideration – least of all doubt – but a person of action, one who does.

But it's not as if this ceasing of thought – in order to act, one has to momentarily cease to think – can spill over too far into utter thoughtlessness. If that were the case, Bush Jr would have been the poster boy for leadership. Thus, what a leader has to do in order to be recognised as a leader is to demonstrate a performativity of thought while acting.

By taking it one step too far, by making a performance out of leadership, Gaddafi ruptured the illusion of disinterestedness – the distance between the self and the position – that leadership requires. We find this exemplified in his “Amazonian Guards”: it's not so much the fact that he surrounded himself with beautiful women that was the problem, but that he was clearly enjoying the attention he received with, and through, this procession. And here we shouldn't forget the echoes of Berlusconi each time the Libyan dictator is mentioned: need anyone say "bunga bunga party"?

This is precisely also why Johnson’s performance on the Andrew Marr Show was such a calamity. Boris’ popularity hinges on the fact that he performs the role of the bungling fool with an antiquated vocabulary, hiding his political incompetence not behind a mask (like most people do) but by foregrounding incompetency itself – and, through doing so, opening the possibility that his incompetency itself is merely an act. A case of: surely no one can be that bad and perhaps he actually knows what he's doing. This is what Rachel Cooke, for instance, posits in her review of Michael Cockerell’s documentary Boris Johnson: the Irresistble Rise, that Johnson’s performance was a “masterclass in dealing with Grim Stuff From One’s Past”; implying that it's all part of an overall strategy. 

However, by actually admitting to his acts – particularly the revelation that he had actually attempted to cover up a made-up quotation by fabricating another one – he shatters all possible distance between the man, his position and his stupidity. True to form, Johnson attempted to save himself by going back to his tried and tested routine: “if a BBC presenter can’t attack a nasty Tory politician, what is the world coming to?” But, by then, the illusion had been shattered and it was too late.

By then, the echoes of Marxism by way of Groucho Marx were too loud for us to ignore: “He may look like an idiot and talk like an idiot but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”

Both instances bring about the opposite effect of Han Christian Andersen’s warning in The Emperor’s New Clothes – for here, it's not so much that a child might be able to shatter the illusion and thus had to be told to shut up, but a much worse situation: the illusion itself has already been shattered and it is the rest of us who are holding it together.


Boris holding a bus. Photo by Jerry Daykin.

And when that becomes too clear for our liking, our judgment is swift and harsh: “You’re a nasty piece of work, aren’t you?

In Seduction, Jean Baudrillard states: "All transgressions are possible, but not the infraction of the rule."

And what is this rule that has been “infracted” – that has been fractured? The fantasy that it is the leader that leads. For, if it's the people who are propping up not just the leader (everyone already knows that) but the very notion of the leader itself, then reality itself crumbles. 

This was the lesson of the London School of Economics’ dalliance with the Gaddafis. It's not so much that universities have been accepting money from questionable sources, but that by awarding Saif al-Islam Gaddafi his doctorate while simultaneously accepting donations from the NGO Gaddafi Foundation, LSE has shattered all illusions of meritocracy. This is why the pariahs of academia are “degree mills”: it is not so much that universities don't sell degrees (try not paying your fees), but that we need to maintain the possibility that we've actually earned them with our intellectual ability. 

And what else maintains the possibility more than the space of metaphor – the figure – itself? We should never forget that figures work precisely because they give us the room to insert our own meaning, our own possibilities, into them. By collapsing the person and the position – by too clearly demonstrating the human – Johnson, Gaddafi, Berlusconi, Palmer, Mitchell and countless others have foregrounded Italo Calvino’s lesson from A King Listens: that anyone can be king, as long as (s)he wields the sceptre and crown.

Which is what truly scares us: not just that the leader we're following might have been us (with all our failings), but that the leader is us. Not in a mystical mumbo-jumbo sense of "we are all one body" (despite what the fascists would like to believe), but in an even more radical sense: that we have imbued the leader, the one we follow, with our fantasies of what it is to be a leader.

The leader: the one who leads. And us: who are led. Always already in a relationality with each other, but with a space, a gap – otherwise the leader and the ones led would be the same. This is precisely the space of the figure.

Which is why Hugo Chavez’ body will be put on permanent display. Not so much to remember his life, but as a reminder that he – like Lenin, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kim Il-Sung, Kim Jong-Il – is dead. Which is not to say that the body of Chavez would have no effect; of course it would. But that it would affect us precisely by being an object: static, decorative, practically an accessory, certainly a sight for tourists and, most importantly, meaningless.

This opens a new reading to the phrase that we commonly use: lead by example. It's not so much what the leader does – echoes of "Do as I say, not as I do" resound here – but the appearance of being a leader, maintaining the figure of a leader, that is crucial. Not that there's a definite nor definable notion of what a leader is, but that's exactly the point.

It is precisely by being whatever you want them to be that they lead.

This might just be why – depressing as it seems – Boris Johnson may yet survive his Lenten gaffe. For, unlike other potential candidates – Theresa May, Adam Afriye, George Osborne, et al – who all insist on being taken seriously, Johnson’s performative disregard for not shooting his mouth off, his ability to be play the dartboard, might just be enough. It would do us well to read David Cameron’s statement – "never underestimate Boris's ability to get out of a tight spot" – as a warning. I mean, we should never forget that setting up his own death did wonders for Jesus’ reputation.

And if you are asking the question, "Is the man walking the dog or is the dog walking the man?", you are missing the point. What matters is the leash; the relation between the dog and the man, the leader and the one who's being led.

After that, both the dog and the man can play their respective roles.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jfwearspink

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