Do Strong Leaders Always Provide Strong Political Leadership?

“A successful liberal democracy is liable to be one that is effectively “leader-proofed”, one in which… it is made difficult for a strong leader to acquire and wield power and in which the government does not rely on strong leaders for its long-term success”.

Anthony King

Last week, Business Authority carried an article titled “Strong Leadership Wins Every Time” The article written by Dr. Kenroy Burke caused me to revisit this blog which I penned almost five years ago. Having done so, I decided to update it and present it for your consideration.


In an earlier article, I explored the relative merit of charismatic and humble leaders. After reading that article, one of our subscribers sent me the link to a BBC news item captioned General election 2017: Do strong leaders make good prime ministers? The article, which I found to be an intriguing and interesting read, combined with President Trump’s apparent bromances with global strong-men such as Putin, Duterte and Ji Xinping, spurred me to continue to explore political leadership in the original (i.e., 2017) version of this article.

The January 2022 general elections in Barbados once again placed the issue of political leadership in the spotlight. What new lessons await us in the examination of the quality of political leadership regionally and internationally?

Lessons from the UK

Leading up to the Brexit negotiations, Prime Minister Theresa May announced early elections in a quest to strengthen her mandate. Her Conservative Party’s slogan was Strong and Stable. How exactly do we define strength? Further, is the strength vested in the leader of the party or in the leadership of the party. I hasten to point out that this is a real distinction and not merely one of semantics.

As suggested in the lead quote from the late British political scientist, Anthony King, the long-term success of a political party may be contingent on the party’s ability to protect itself from the over-centralization of power in the hands of a maximum leader. When the personality of the leader becomes indistinguishable from that of the party, the fate of both may attain lofty highs. However, there is also a real risk that they will both crash and burn.

Most of us are quite familiar with the principle of collective responsibility. With a maximum leader at the helm, that principle for all intents and purposes may translate into Toe the line, or else. Here’s the thing, that approach may work quite well…  until it doesn’t. Case in point is Margaret Thatcher.

Margaret Thatcher aka Iron Lady epitomized strength. However, her approach to governing served to alienate many, including members of her own party. As a result, she was ultimately ousted by her cabinet as individual ministers became increasingly unwilling to accept collective responsibility for her decisions and actions.

In the classic definition of the term, Mr Attlee was not a strong leader, yet he headed a strong and stable government.

In stark contrast to PM Thatcher, the foregoing quotation from a BBC article highlighted the less dominant style of Prime Minister Clement Atlee. The distinction between how Atlee showed up as a leader and the efficacy of his leadership of the government is noteworthy. Due in large measure to his approach to leadership, Atlee served at the helm of his party for twenty years until his retirement.

Trump, Duterte et al

Closer to home, between 2016 and 2020 we saw another maximum leader at the helm of a government producing less than sterling results. With a majority in both houses during his first two years in office, one might have expected that President Trump would have been able to quickly advance his policy agenda. Obviously, so did he. Not so fast!

Among the speed bumps encountered by President Trump were challenges to his Executive Orders, the spectacular failure to repeal the Affordable Care (Obama Care) Act, the refusal of Republicans to simply toe the line, the hiccup with funding his infamous wall, etc. If it’s one lesson that Trump learnt during his single term and two impeachments, it’s that he couldn’t run the government/country the same way he ran his personal empire where he was the undisputed maximum leader.

The systemic checks and balances which Trump appeared to view as nothing more than an irritant/nuisance were what stood between a dictatorship and democracy. Therefore, there were many who became increasingly concerned by Trump’s apparent fascination with maximum leaders such as Putin, Duterte and Kim Jong-un. It could also be said that such fascination was an early warning signal of what eventually transpired on January 6th, 2021.

There is no disputing the fact that Trump is a strong leader. The same applies to Vladmir Putin. However, what is the verdict on their leadership and the quality of government under said leadership?

The Barbadian Experience

The recent general elections in Barbados were billed as a referendum on leadership with then Democratic Labour Party (DLP) leader Verla De Pieza going toe to toe with Prime Minister and Barbados Labour Party (BLP) leader Mia Mottley. In fact, Lucille Moe – former BLP campaign strategist, Government Senator and lifelong friend to PM Mottley – went on record expressing grave concerns about the Prime Minister’s leadership. She went as far as describing said leadership as autocratic and dictatorial. 

Apparently the electorate did not share Ms Moe’s concerns – not judging from the fact that all 30 seats were won by the BLP in a rare repeat of the 2018 feat.

It is instructive to note that in October 2021 – months before PM Mottley called the snap elections – Dr. Basil Springer penned an article in which he suggested that the Caribbean adapt  the “benevolent dictator” leadership style of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, where fearless decisions are made in the people’s interest and the country grows. He went on to suggest that the BLP could call a snap election.

Perhaps even more noteworthy is the fact that Dr. Springer went on to suggest that buoyed by a fresh mandate, PM Mottley could then give her ministers more autonomy and ultimately appoint her replacement. Time will tell if this aspect of Dr. Springer’s article will be equally prophetic.

Whether or not you concur with the assessment of Mia Mottley’s leadership as being akin to that of a maximum leader, there are lessons to be learnt about how other countries have fared following the departure of a strong political leader.

Life after a Maximum Leader

In addition to examining the effect maximum leaders have on their countries while in government, it is instructive to explore how the countries fare in the wake of their tenure. The case could be made that great leaders, like great parents, have an obligation to work themselves out of a job by preparing the country to continue to thrive after they exit the stage. If they fail to do so either due to oversight or to ego or to some other variable, the consequences can be dire.

It could be suggested that the current situation in Venezuela had its genesis in the fact that Commander Hugo Chavez was such a strong leader and that his party just wasn’t prepared to replace him after his tragic and untimely passing. Maduro was hand-picked by Chavez to be his successor. However, he has been hard pressed to fill his predecessor’s shoes, despite his dedication to all that President Chavez represented.

Contrast that with what transpired in Cuba with the passing of the baton from Fidel to Raul Castro. The younger Castro was described as a pragmatist – quite a difference when compared to his brother’s charisma. Many pundits were betting against Raul when he first assumed the reins of leadership in 2008. However, he stood the test of time and led his country through a series of economic reforms during his 15 year tenure. His success resulted, not from mirroring his older brother’s leadership style but rather from being true to his own, very different leadership persona.

So, what’s your response to the BBC question? Is your Prime Minister/President a strong leader – a maximum leader? If so, how is that brand of leadership affecting your country right now? How about in the future? Will you be better or worse off once s/he exits the stage – either voluntarily or by force?

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