Great Leaders:
I confess I rather find the phrase “great leader” to be an oxymoron.  Great should be a lot better than good.  Good people don’t get those who trust them or are under their influence to get killed.  So you just can’t have a war with a “great” leader.  Had that person been on the twig, the war should have been avoided.  But the issue persists: some leaders are more effective than others. 

I have read an article (The Makings of Great Leaders, Michael Bond NATURE vol. 466 no. 7308 August 12, 2010 page 819 reviewing The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power by A. Alexander Haslam, Stephan Reicher and Michael J. Platow, Psychology Press: 2010. 304 pp £ 45 and Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow and Why It Matters by Mark Van Vught and Anjana Ahuja Profile Books/Harper Business: 2010/2011.  272pp £ 12.99/$ 26.99) that looks into the issue.  A couple of points stand out.

One thing is that an effective leader needs to be seen as typical of the group that is led and as holding the same values.  Well that smarts.  Nobody ever accused me of either.  So I am no born leader.  And when I approach a leader, that leader’s first question must effectively be, “Is this the kind of thing my constituency believes?”  Since the answer for the issue of this web site is “absolutely not,” that leader must instinctively dismiss the issue. 

I do not see an easy way around.  Oh it can be done.  Hitler and Stalin both achieved a consensus, each for his own wacky political theory.  They both did it by the less than subtle stratagem of murdering anybody who questioned them.  T’ain’t my style, no matter how important the new consensus would be.  Eisenhower achieved a consensus behind the decision of the Supreme Court by the somewhat more elegant tactic of sending storm troopers to Little Rock.  (Of course the consensus change had nothing to do with my own issue.)  To be sure, there were the Freedom Riders who put their own dignity on the line by running around in busses flouting laws they did not like and that were inconsistent with the emerging consensus.  But it can’t have done any harm for their cause that everybody knew that the young men with machine guns were ready at a moment’s notice.

The Freedom Riders appeal to me as a way to change opinions.  I would not even feel the need to be backed up by main force.  But if what you want is not illegal, then it’s hard to see just how Freedom Riding gets you anywhere.  (Demonstrations also accomplished much.  None of my friends got involved in them.  I knew one or two Freedom Riders.  But a number of my friends told jokes that heaped scorn on the old consensus.  I wonder if that had any effect.) 

Of course there was a spin off from Freedom Riding.  It sort of got to be OK to push your views by breaking laws.  Neither Jesus nor Socrates deliberately broke laws so far as I know.  I think the idea started with Henry David Thoreau.  There was some law he did not like so he did not obey it.  His friend Wordsworth came to visit him in prison and asked how an honest man could be there.  Thoreau replied by asking how an honest man could be walking free.

Gandhi upped the ante by mobilizing lots of people to do it.  The Freedom Riders did not add much beyond that, nor did the anti war activists with their passive resistance in the sixties and seventies.  But eventually you began to get the feel that things were creeping toward terrorism, where ever greater atrocities seem to emerge.

Thoreau would not have approved, I feel sure.

Again, this leads in a direction where I cannot follow.  I really don’t want to hurt anybody.

Maybe an inspiration will come.

The other point of the article is that effective leaders do not need brains, judgment or a viable policy.  What they need is for people around them to feel that they speak for the group.  And that group needs to be rather intimate and egalitarian.  Well that’s nice.  I do see a difficulty with one person being paid an enormous amount more than the next person. 

But then the article drops in a number.  It is the number of people who can work together effectively.  It is about the largest number of people who can all learn each others’ names.  That number goes back to the African savannah, where humans lived for a long time in little bands of hunter gatherers.  We are hard wired for it.

The number is 150.

Aha.  That is just about the size of the ideal group of families for both high fertility and stability.  My feel for it is that groups a little bigger grow slower and if much bigger go into population decline.  Groups a little smaller can grow faster, but the growth is destabilizing.  Much smaller and you are courting inbreeding depression.  It’s just my feel.  It is consistent with the evidence.  I’m sure there is a number.  I’m just not quite so sure what it is.

So if you want to be an effective leader, you need to limit your horizon to about 150 people.  Stay at that many and you can know and care about them all.

That’s right.  I know it.  I just don’t do it.

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