Kissinger on strategic leadership

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By Maleeha Lodhi

THERE has long been a debate about the role of individuals in history, whether they can shape the environment and bring about change in society. Now a thoughtful new book joins this discussion. ‘Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy’ by Henry Kissinger is a must-read work which delves into the question of why leaders are indispensable. At age 99, Kissinger has written an insightful book that considers six case studies of global leaders to draw general conclusions about leadership. But more than offer vignettes of these leaders, he describes with his rich understanding of history the specific circumstances and challenges they had to deal with in the tumultuous eras they lived in.

At the outset he states where he stands in the debate. “Without leadership” he writes, “institutions drift and nations court growing irrelevance and ultimately, disaster.” Kissinger sees leaders acting and thinking at the intersection of two axes – between the past and the future and between the abiding values and aspirations of those they lead.” Courage to set a direction and strength of character to stay the course makes for leadership. As do strategies pursued as “educators” to communicate, mobilize and allay doubts. Strategic leaders, he argues, understand the importance of history as that serves as the best teacher of statecraft. But while necessary, it is not sufficient. Leaders must also know how to adapt to contemporary circumstances. The strategist’s craft involves knowing how to shape the future using what is available at present. And ‘strategy’, he says, describes the conclusion a leader reaches in the face of limitations imposed by scarcity, competition and fluidity.

Kissinger chooses “six consequential” leaders to study – all of who he knew – as they reflect the “combination of character and circumstance that creates history.” These leaders are Konrad Adeneur, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Margaret Thatcher and Lee Kuan Yew. One may disagree with this selection but it is Kissinger’s assessment of the qualities they brought to statecraft that is of interest to the reader. They all saw upheavals or wars, and some the impact of colonialism. They all transformed their countries and “contributed to the emergence of a new world order.”

Henry Kissinger

Most leaders, observes Kissinger, are “not visionary but managerial” but transformational leaders are needed in periods of crisis. He draws a distinction between statesmen and visionary leaders. The former is defined by his/her analytical ability and political skill, the latter by vision. Leaders can also move from one type to the other. Both, he says, can be transformational. All the leaders he profiles represent a combination of the two but veer more toward the statesmanlike. He makes another distinction. “Ordinary leaders seek to manage the immediate; great ones attempt to raise their society to their vision. And yes, he says, individuals do matter in history ” because they transcended the circumstances they inherited and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible.”

In Adenauer he sees a leader who inherited a broken, defeated country but one to which he restored order, dignity and legitimacy through a ‘strategy of humility.’ He had the responsibility of dealing with the aftermath of surrender and managed, by his leadership, to heal Germany and restore its international standing among the comity of democratic nations. He oversaw and helped define his country’s transition to “democratic sovereignty” and carve out a new postwar national identity while dealing with the vexed issue of reparations to the Jewish people and recovery from the psychological scars of its Nazi past. Adenauer’s humility is captured in this quote from him. When asked how he would like to be remembered he said: “He has done his duty.”

I found the chapter on Lee Kuan Yew most compelling. Kissinger writes with admiration about a man who changed the destiny of an impoverished, multiethnic city state and transformed it into a prosperous and stable country that found impressive unity in diversity and established peace with previously hostile neighbours. He is portrayed as pursuing a ‘strategy of excellence. His twin goals for his country were to achieve economic viability and security. He never externalized Singapore’s challenges nor wanted help from outsiders to meet them. Kissinger posits that one of the essential qualities of leaders is to avoid being carried away by the mood of the moment. He places the Singaporean leader in the genre of those who dared to go against the grain. He distinguishes his accomplishments from others in his book as Lee became the leader of a new nation which he had to build, unify and turn into a “world-class economy.” He transformed Singapore into one of the most successful countries in the world by overcoming formidable hurdles. Lee became a world statesman and also ensured his country acquired a reputation for excellence.

In the concluding chapter the author identifies what the six leaders had in common in terms of leadership. All were bold, courageous, decisive and had a powerful vision and strong sense of reality. Significantly they did not hesitate to court controversy, offend entrenched interests or alienate key constituencies. That Kissinger says is “the price of making history.”

(Maleeha Lodhi is a former Pakistani ambassador to the US, UK & UN. Twitter @LodhiMaleeha)