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The Great Leader Revival

LONDON – Two hundred years have passed since the battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon’s calamitous defeat made such a huge dent in his country’s self-image that General Charles de Gaulle, in his history of the French army, simply omitted it. Nonetheless, Napoleon, like de Gaulle, would both easily make it onto any list of history’s great leaders – assuming, of course, that one considers “greatness” to be an individual trait.

Marx and Tolstoy would say that there is no such thing as a “great leader.” For Marx, the class struggle in France created the circumstances in which a “grotesque mediocrity” – that is, Napoleon – was morphed into a hero. As far as Tolstoy was concerned, Napoleon was not a particularly good general, and was carried to victory by the courage and commitment of all of the individual French soldiers who won the Battle of Borodino.

Whether or not Napoleon was great, the question remains whether any leader could merit that description. And if so, who?

There seem to be two particularly important criteria for great leadership, both noted by the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. First, does the leader recognize which way the winds of history are blowing? Otto von Bismarck did, as did his fellow German Konrad Adenauer; both, in Bismarck’s memorable phrase, could hear “the rustle of God’s cloak.”