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What makes a good leader? Part 1

What are the traits that a good leader requires? Stamina, intelligence, ego: which characteristics make for the best bosses?

Some say a second-class mind makes for a first-class leader, others that madness is an essential feature of the role. From Trump and Obama, to Blair and Boris Johnson, which personalities are born to rule?

There is a story that often gets told about modern presidents and prime ministers, and sometimes gets told by them as well. The politician spends half a lifetime working tirelessly towards the top job, with the goal of making a real difference once he or she gets there. They issue their instructions. Dutiful officials nod along encouragingly. But nothing really changes. Once the door to the Oval Office or No 10 closes behind them, and they settle their feet under the desk, the new president or prime minister finds out that it’s just another room and just another desk. It feels as if true power is still somewhere out of reach.

In politics you should never assume that there is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s better to know how little is waiting for you, like a weird inversion of the parable of The Wizard of Oz. In place of the Yellow Brick Road is the greasy pole, which has to be ascended to reach the Emerald City. Yet the successful climber finds that his or her fate is not to encounter a shrunken wizard at the end of it. Instead it is to become that person: the impostor behind the curtain.

How do politicians react when they discover themselves in that position? Some, like George W Bush, never quite acknowledge it. Others, like Tony Blair, decide to do something about it. Blair concluded that he had to build the machinery that would enable his administration to deliver on its ambitions. He called this instrument “the delivery unit”. It was designed to make sure that the levers in Downing Street were connected to the rest of government. Yet even after 10 years in power, Blair was frustrated with how little he had managed to achieve. One reason he was reluctant to leave office at the end was a nagging feeling that he was only just beginning to get the hang of it.

Real power still felt out of reach, somewhere over the horizon. Since quitting frontline politics, Blair has made himself into a salesman for the idea of “Deliverology”, which promises to help politicians around the world with the problem of actually getting things done. It’s a pretty threadbare prospectus. Perma-tanned and increasingly wizened, Blair cuts a tawdry figure these days. Here is another version of the morality tale: the wizard has spent so long behind the curtain that he doesn’t realise how diminished he appears when he steps out in front.

There are other ways of responding to the deficit of power at the summit of politics. The truly paranoid politician believes that the reason the levers are not working is that someone has cut the strings. Faced with the frustrations of office, it is always tempting to imagine that there is a conspiracy at work to prevent meaningful change. Blame it on the “deep state” – or, in the politer British version, on “Sir Humphrey”. Probably no one is immune from this suspicion, especially in the long reaches of the night. Most politicians have had moments when they believed that dark forces were at work to prevent them getting their way. But only one has turned this belief into his governing philosophy. Donald Trump’s response to any setback is to claim that he is the victim of a deliberate attempt to subvert his authority. He cannot accept that there are inherent limits to the power of his office. So any manifestations of those limits become further evidence of the conspiracy against him. These are the dangers of electing a narcissist to an office that is not as powerful as it seems.

That said, it is not true that none of the levers work. Some do, all too well. Another temptation is to keep pulling until you find one that produces a direct response. Inevitably, for both presidents and prime ministers, this tends to be the lever that links to the armed forces. Again, Blair is emblematic here, but he is far from unusual. Chastened by his inability to get traction with his domestic agenda, Blair latched gratefully on to the opportunity presented by 9/11 to turn himself into a player on the international stage. It wasn’t just that he wanted to put the world to rights according to his own lights. It was also that he was able to do so, more easily than he could put his own government right, because the instrument to hand was military force. The same was true of Bush. But it has equally been true of politicians as otherwise different from each other as Margaret Thatcher and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. The power of the office they hold is least constrained when it comes to taking action abroad. That is why presidents and PMs, who almost never get elected on a foreign policy platform, often find that foreign policy is what ends up defining their tenure at the top. The international arena is where they can make the biggest difference, for better or for worse.

The trauma of 9/11 – and what followed – reveals another fundamental truth. The power of presidents and prime ministers is hugely dependent on the accidents of history. For Margaret Thatcher, the Falklands war completely altered what it was possible for her to achieve in office. Without Argentina’s invasion of April 1982, over which she had no control, her premiership would have been very different. For Gordon Brown, the financial crisis of 2007–8 reconfigured what he could accomplish, as it did for Obama’s presidency. Such unforeseen events do not suddenly endow presidents and prime ministers with superpowers: the frustrations of trying to get things done remain just as intense (as both Brown and Obama discovered). But they do provide an opportunity to break out of a rut.

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