The paradox of political leaders

Some people are more certain of everything than I am of anything. – Robert Rubin

The people most attracted to power are the most dangerous to let have it. Yet it’s only the people most driven to get elected that can survive the process. This creates a fundamental paradox to democracy, that the people best suited for the job on some dimensions would never win the election process, or choose to run at all.

Reasonable doubts are part of the paradox. We all know there are excellent reasons to have doubts about big decisions. When you deeply understand an issue, it’s clear there are good arguments on both sides. But when we look for leaders, we demand certainty. We are attracted to people who have bold convictions about both what is wrong and what is the right way to fix it. We are drawn to people who project demigod like clarity, dismissing their opponents as fundamentally wrong rather than having a different perspective, even though we know deep down that level of certainty can’t really exist.

Any leader who admitted uncertainty, admitted doubt, admitted that there may be more than one good answer, makes for an impossible candidate. We wouldn’t listen to them for long, even if our attention spans allowed it. Even though those doubts may be a sign of their wisdom, rather than incompetence.

We chase the mythical image of a leader, and demand candidates give it to us, yet when they are elected and reveal themselves to be human, or change their mind as an act of progress rather than deception, we complain we’ve been betrayed. But in a way we all betray the people who might make for better leaders, by ignoring them in favor of a fantasy.


9 Responses to “The paradox of political leaders”

  1. Carey

    I completely agree Scott. I have long felt that I would personally appreciate the down-to-earth, willing-to-admit-a-mistaken-position sort of leader much MORE than the type we typically get. But I think you are right, our culture wouldn’t give him/her the time of day. And it IS a betrayal of them, the honest, authentic, leaders-of-character for us to do so. Great post!

    1. Scott Berkun

      There’s something in this about rational vs emotional thinking. Rationally we want someone who is wise and has a broad perspective. But emotionally, we want someone with the confidence and authority of a god.

  2. sdimeglio

    I think you make some excellent points in your post. The one thing that makes me crazy though is when a candidate says he has a plan for something or other but that it has to remain secret until after he is elected. If you have a plan and there are no national security implications, then voice it so I can decide how I am going to vote. If you don’t have a plan, don’t act you do. Just explain how you intend to develop one. Leaders don’t have to have all of the answers but they better be asking the right questions and considering all of the options and all of the people.

    1. Scott Berkun

      That’s fair.

      The wrinkle in any republic is no elected official has as much power as we pretend. It’s hard to make any bill or plan passed as law. Very hard. By design it’s improbable any plan can get far without many rounds of compromise.

      We elect senators and presidents and representatives assuming they’re going to work alone in a room and make decisions all day, but no elected government has ever worked in that fashion.

      Even if they offered a clear and detailed plan, the odds of that exact plan surviving the process are slim.

  3. Malcolm

    Does “bold clarity” only convey leadership when there is doubt in the core issue? (for example, is “leadership or attractiveness” to be generated when someone announces “1+1=2”

    Does that “bold clarity” only generate attractiveness in the group that agrees with the candidate? Does boldness unite the group that agrees or fracture the group that doesn’t? Perhaps both?

    Is the root cause of the attractiveness that the statement was demonstrably supported by a group of people? Consider the video: Lone nut versus leader.

    1. Scott Berkun

      I’ve seen that video many times before. It’s fascinating to watch.

      The only attempt an answers to your questions is the questions explain why politicians are motivated to give different answers to different audiences. Being bold means different things to different groups of people.

  4. Serge Zenin

    Unfortunately, people in today’s society–or maybe just in general–aren’t analytical and multifaceted enough to appreciate the complexity of issues, and they want a candidate who speaks in a clear, unwavering fashion, appealing to the lowest common denominator. A politician is not honest when he projects this god-like image of assurance, but he does it nonetheless to win an election. Once elected, he does (hopefully) consider these complexities and must deal with his own self-doubt. I don’t think any politician honestly feels like they really know exactly what the problem is and how to fix it, it’s just an image they must project, it’s marketing, nothing more. It’s what people want (predictability), and politicians fighting in an election pretend to give it to them in exchange for votes. That’s just how it is, and I believe that’s how it always has been…

  5. Sean Crawford

    Scott, I like your last line. (…we all betray the people…)

    That line and “…even though we know deep down…” applies as well to us forcing people to make unreal campaign promises, that we don’t expect them to keep, even though we do expect them to keep any non-campaign promise in the real world, after they are elected.

    In one of the John Rain novels a politician has to “get in bed” with the corrupt construction firms in order to get campaign funding. As do all the other politicians, too. When at first he tries to take the high road he fails. The people, who surely know deep down where the funding would come from, do not elect him. He learns for next time.

    The consequence is part of the two ironies that some body pointed out: The Japanese, who love nature, keep paving everywhere, and the US Americans, who love peace, keep defending everywhere.


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