What Is a Leader?

The verb “to lead” means to be out in front. But it also has the implication of knowing where the group that one leads is to go. The image of the lead mountain climber mistakenly guiding the troupe over a cliff comes to mind. The leader is supposed to know the way and to know when he doesn’t. We look for political leaders who know the way — to what? They seek to limit evils and to promote the reasonable flourishing of citizens to be sufficiently prosperous and humanly good.
What if, as is often the case, we do not know the way? In this case, we probably need a leader even more. To do nothing is stagnation. Any endeavor that has its result in the future is uncertain, however much we seek to anticipate eventualities. All political action is about the future, the direction of which is decided in the now. Thus, we look for a leader who is sensible and prudent in judging the way. We do not want as leader someone who thinks there is no way, or one whose proposals direct us to a goal that is impossible or unattainable by the kind of beings we are in the circumstances in which we actually live.
We often hear talk about “voting issues,” not persons. I have never thought this was a particularly good idea. Generally, we have no notion of what political leaders will face once they are in office. They do not know either. We seek leaders with character, the capacity to understand, and the will to decide among immediate and long-range alternatives. The classics called it political prudence. We depend on incisive judgments.
We look for those who understand what human beings are and ought to be. We are leery of ideologues, wafflers, and libertines. A certain moderation is required that appreciates that more goes on within the polity than politics. This arena is where all citizens, including politicians, are working out their eternal destiny even in what they do within the polity.
Yves Simon had an insightful sentence about why politics, even if it must deal with serious human disorders, is noble. It reads: “The joy of the creator assumes unique intensity when the thing out of which the work of art is made is human flesh and soul.” He did not imply here the Machiavellian notion that politics is a craft under the control of the political artist, to be used as he wishes to obtain whatever he wills.
Rather, Simon meant that the statesman or leader recognizes that what he deals with are not inert material lumps. He occupies himself with human beings who are to be dealt with after the manner of human beings, that is, through reason and persuasion with enough force to guarantee their possibility of acting humanly. Modern tyrannies are precisely those polities in which force allows neither reason nor persuasion. The statesman’s awareness of reality includes particular knowledge both of virtue and corruption as facts existing in his polity. But also he knows them as results of human choices made under the claim of doing good.
Cicero has a provocative remark: “As the philosophers instruct, one must not only choose the least among evils, one must also extract from them any good that they may contain.” No one can choose “pure evil.” There is no such thing; not even the devil is pure evil. All evil is chosen in the name of some good. This good continues within the act that also lacks the good it should have contained, but did not because we chose not to put it there. This is how “good” can be brought from evil. This evil, however, has to be defined, admitted, and confronted. No politician can escape its burden. It will consume much of his career.
All political leaders, moreover, stand under the Socratic dictum, “It is never right to do wrong.” Aristotle makes the same point. Some actions we do not praise, though we may pardon them if “one does what he ought not under pressure which overstrains human nature and which no one could withstand.” Aristotle adds, however, “Some acts, perhaps, we cannot be forced to do, but ought rather to face death after the most fearful sufferings.” A society in which nothing is worth dying for is a society in which everything is permissible.
A corrupt people will not recognize a prudent leader. They will want laws that encourage and enable their vices. Still the mark of a reasonably prudent statesman is that we can rely on his judgment and courage. Even more basic, we know that he can make a decision in the light of a common good that does seek what is good.
Among the classical authors, the common opinion was that a democracy would eventually choose as a ruler a tyrant who promised them what they wanted. Then he would subject them to what he wanted. The American founders understood this problem, which is why they founded a republic, not a democracy.
Plato said in his Seventh Letter: “The more I reflected upon what was happening, upon what kind of men were active in politics, and upon the state of our laws and customs, and the older I grew, the more I realized how difficult it is to manage a city’s affairs rightly.” It is, indeed, the most difficult of all the human occupations of this world.
Politics is about who rules and for what purpose. It is not a “science.” It is dependent on character and practical wisdom. “Such wisdom is concerned not only with universals but with particulars, which become familiar from experience, but a young man has no experience, for it is length of time that gives experience.” These are Aristotle’s words.
What is a leader? He is a prudent man who can, in an actual city, make decisions for the temporal common good of citizens who, by their characters, are already choosing their membership in one or other of the two ultimate cities, the City of God or the City of Man.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J.


Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books including The Mind That Is Catholic from Catholic University of America Press; Remembering Belloc from St. Augustine Press; and Reasonable Pleasures from Ignatius Press. His later books include A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning and Being Forgiven (2016) and On the Principles of Taxing Beer and Other Brief Philosophical Essays (2017). His last books are Catholicism and Intelligence (Emmaus Road, 2017); The Universe We Think In (CUA Press, 2018); Run That By Me Again (Tan, 2018) and The Reason for the Season (Sophia Institute Press, 2018).

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