The idea that the more power one individual leader wields, the more we should be impressed by that leader is an illusion. Where corners are cut because one leader is sure he knows best, problems follow, and they can be on a disastrous scale, according to Archie Brown in his book The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age. The book examines the leadership styles of a large range of political leaders including dictators and democratic leaders.
The author’s essential thesis is that it is unhelpful to rate political leaders on a single strong-weak scale given that there are so many different dimensions to effective leadership, and indeed leaders who are unconstrained by others in making their decisions tend to make significantly poorer decisions. Mao Zedong was a better leader in the early days of the Chinese Communist Party than when he acquired a position of absolute power. Tony Blair made his poorest decisions when he made them without adequate discussion with others.
The book tells interesting stories about a very large number of political leaders from the past century. The author has a great deal of personal knowledge of many of those leaders, and the book is an excellent history book. However, it is hard to read the book without observing that the best leaders are rarely the ones who float to the top of the political process, whether in democracies or in dictatorships. The author has provided extensive material to demonstrate the dangers of the “strong” political leader, but the stories do not coalesce into a neat description of the characteristics of a “good” political leader.