From the Guest Editors:
Leadership in Context The six essays in this Special Issue explore important questions that are at the heart of the understanding of political leadership. We ask: what are the relationships among personal political skill, the strength or weakness of institutional roles available to leaders, and the changing historical and political contexts within which leaders act? Politicians with agendas for change seek to create dynamic relations of talent, institutional powers, and the politics of strategic leadership in the environments they face. Passive leaders may leave things as they are or inadvertently stimulate new political opposition. Institutional powers may strengthen the hand of less skillful politicians if the environment is favorable. And political climates will vary greatly in the degrees to which they are favorable to potentially skillful leadership. Effective leadership may be successful by a hair’s breadth, or it may be over-determined by context. The different answers that political scientists have provided to these questions may be arrayed along a continuum at one end of which are located scholars who view the actions of leaders as determined in large part by the political contexts and situations in which they work. Given similar situations, these contextualists argue, leaders in the same position will act in similar ways without much individual variation (Lowi 1985; Cooper and Brady 1981; Rhode 1991; Sinclair 1999). In the nineteenth century, exponents of the “Great Man” [sic] theory occupied the other end of this continuum. Now, currently unpopulated, scattered at points away from the contextualist pole are several approaches that allow individual leaders greater freedom of action and capacity to use their political skills. According to these interpretations, leaders use the institutional roles that they occupy to seek out and exploit with varying degrees of success opportunities for leadership—what Machiavelli calls fortuna (the contingent of history)—to exercise influence over the political context (Burke and Greenstein 1989; Doig and Hargrove 1987, Hargrove 1998, Owens 1985; Palazzolo 1992; Peters 1990; Strahan 1992; Strahan, Moscardelli, Haspel, and Wike 2000.) Each of these approaches accepts the importance of context. But those allowing great importance for leaders’ skills are not deterministic, although they certainly do not claim that leaders may prevail no matter what. The boundaries of possible action are set by context, but there is flexibility within the boundaries. The debate between the relative importance of skill and role is not just a chicken-egg question. Some claim that skill precedes and Politics & Policy • Volume 30 • No. 2 • June 2002
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activates effective role-playing. Others downplay personality and focus on the institution. The latter view is perhaps congenial to most political scientists because a focus on skill seems too psychological and raises difficulties of generalization about leadership (e.g. Sinclair 1998). But it may be possible to generalize about the situations in which individual skill makes an important difference. A good deal of the literature on leadership sees individual leaders as effective over final policy decisions only at the margins because of the strength of other factors (Edwards 1991). However, such approaches are based on aggregate data about policy cases and do not take into account the crucial differences that individuals may make in particular situations. We set out this debate to open it up rather than resolve it. Three of the papers in this Special Issue emphasize the importance of skill and three see institutional role-playing, quite apart from skill, as more important. Hargrove, Theakston, and Owens look to skill; and Bell, Harlen and Lord emphasize role. All of us accept the importance of context. We do not claim to reconcile or choose between these approaches, but present them as food for thought for students of political leadership. We do challenge the proposition that context determines action exclusively. Comparison of Political Leaders Across Time Here we may proceed in at least two ways. We may discern recurring patterns of regime and leadership. For example, if we agree that US presidents Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt were presidents of â€œReconstruction,â€? who created long-term partisan majorities, then one could ask whether Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich or Margaret Thatcher created such a regime (Skowronek 1997, Chapter 8). We also may take account of the fact that political conditions constantly change over time, apart from regimes. This is evident when a leader remains in office a long timeâ€”as many as eight years for a US president, as many as twelve for a British prime minister (Margaret Thatcher), or sixteen for a German Kanzler (Helmut Kohl). The leaders change in relation to their partisan support, the larger political context, and how their personalities and leadership styles adapt to these changing circumstances. Cross-National Comparisons Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to office at approximately the same time by virtue of public rejection of their predecessors in office,
Hargrove and Owens 201 but without explicit mandates for specific policy actions. Jimmy Carter and James Callaghan had presided over economies and politics in turmoil. The constituencies of their parties were noisy claimants on governments with weak authority, and unhappy voters finally said, “enough is enough.” Both Reagan and Thatcher proceeded as if they had mandates and introduced vigorous programs of reform. The regimes had their day with Thatcher achieving more than Reagan, not only because of her toughness, but also because Britain’s parliamentary system gives a prime minister greater institutional powers compared to those of a president in a separated system. In due course, these regimes wore out their welcome, but their immediate successors, George Bush and John Major, suffered the political consequences. (Bell, Hargrove, and Theakston 1999). As the political fortunes of Bush and Major plummeted, the party of the left revived, and, led by Clinton and Blair, transformed itself into a party of the center. Reagan and Thatcher had forced the progressive parties to shed old clothes and take on new, more centrist ones in order to win. But this strategy alienated the old left and created new dilemmas about the viable character of progressive politics. In both instances, the logic of the politics of political economy seems to have been much the same in these two countries. Three explanations may be offered. First, the two economies were closely intertwined. Second, Anglo-American economic theory, whether Keynesian, classical, supply side, or monetarist, provided similar nostrums at similar points in policy development in response to roughly similar conditions. Third, the center of political gravity and the structure of party competition in these countries, while further to the left in Britain, was essentially centrist. Apart from these broad comparisons, we should also be attentive to the impact of different institutional environments, not only between unified and separated systems, but also within the executive and legislative branches in the US and between different parliamentary regimes (Weaver and Rockman 1993; Elgie 1995). A Comparative Study of Politicians Hargrove begins the exploration of the skills in context theme by analyzing US presidents from Carter through Clinton. He argues that even those presidents with reputations as weak leaders exhibited personal skills that proved effective in exploiting opportunities in particular contexts that were favorable to them. Carter’s success with the Panama Canal treaties and the Egypt-Israel accord at Camp David, Bush’s skillful assembling of the international coalition at the beginning of the Gulf War, and Clinton’s successful counterpunching against Gingrich and the Republicans after the
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1995 budget débâcle all provide good examples in this respect. Reagan was the only one of the four who was able to combine his personal skill with a favorable political context to achieve major policy changes. The study shows that personal ineptness clearly damages the effectiveness of leaders—as Carter and Clinton learned when they sent grossly over-ambitious agendas to Congress in their first years, and as Bush provided in his limp reaction to declining economic conditions after the Gulf War. A key point that emerges from this analysis is that a president’s ability to exercise effective leadership may turn first on his/her ability to discern the historical possibility for effective action, and second his/her ability to take action. Owens stresses the variability of leadership skills and opportunities in the US Congress. Focusing on recent Republican congressional leaders, he argues that Newt Gingrich’s leadership of the House of Representatives in 1994-95 represented one of those moments in congressional history when an individual leader’s skills made a crucial difference. Gingrich had the vision (and a great deal of hubris) and the skills to rally his colleagues for the 1994 elections. He then successfully led his party in the House to enact a significant part of its policy agenda. Owens sees that Gingrich’s style of leadership matched the political possibilities of the time. But Gingrich, along with Dennis Hastert and Trent Lott, also found it necessary to build coalitions beyond the party. In this way all three were able to realize success for the party on welfare reform, budgetary policy, and educational reform. Owens’ study also depicts leaders who lacked vision and skill, which negated effective leadership, as seen in Hastert’s stubbornness on campaign finance reform, gun control, and the patient’s bill of rights. It is made clear that in the contemporary congressional environment the ability of leaders to juggle leadership strategies that accommodate party, electoral, and policy contexts has become an important requirement for effective leadership. This predicament is exacerbated in the Senate for Trent Lott because of the institution’s non-majoritarian nature. Theakston’s analysis of four British leaders shows the importance of context. James Callaghan was a prisoner of his party’s priorities, which Thatcher repudiated to her benefit. John Major became a prisoner of her programs. Callaghan and Major had to practice reactive politics. Even so, Theakston shows us that Callaghan was “a skilled fixer” who was adept at solving problems that enabled his minority government to remain in office until the overwhelming crisis of “the Winter of Discontent” of the last year of his premiership. Major dealt skillfully with foreign leaders, especially in the difficult negotiations over the future development of the European Union.
Hargrove and Owens 203 But Thatcher was clearly the most effective leader whose force of personality pushed through a new policy agenda that overturned the existing consensus. There would have been no Thatcherism without Thatcher. Executive-dominated party government in Britain gives the prime minister great powers; but even prime ministers must have discernment and action skills. Thatcher adapted to context, therefore, when she could not achieve all she wanted. She adopted a cautious, flexible, tactical approach (as over the 1979 Rhodesia/Zimbabwe settlement, over Hong Kong, over the 1985 Anglo-Irish agreement, and over the Single European Act). Yet, even allowing for Thatcher’s vision and skill, she was often unsuccessful in overcoming context, particularly when Nigel Lawson and Geoffrey Howe, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary respectively, forced her to join the European exchange rate mechanism over her strong opposition. Harlen looks at the last three Chancellors of Germany whose parliamentary system lends itself neither to the presidential strategies sometimes pursued by British prime ministers who turn to public opinion if their parties seem weak, nor to the adoption of coherent policy packages like Thatcher. In systems where leadership is institutionally dispersed, coalition building and maintaining are vital skills for German, French and European Union leaders. Harlen emphasizes Helmut Schmidt’s skill in developing the administrative capacity of his office to ensure greater cabinet cohesion and discipline and good coordination of government activity. But Schmidt was hindered by party disunity and social protest against his government. He could not link his office to his party effectively. Helmut Kohl devoted himself to party leadership and balancing factions within his CDU and coalition partner the FDP. He used his skills as a negotiator to make bold policy, insisting on the reunification of Germany and providing strong support for further European integration. Harlen also emphasizes the importance of Gerhard Schröder’s negotiating skills in keeping together a divided SDP. By deploying his skills in context and suppressing presidentialist aspirations, Schröder has been able to achieve impressive policy results, especially on taxes and pension reforms, German participation in NATO, and other aspects of German foreign policy. Lord’s innovative article on leadership in a supranational context demonstrates the interaction of skills and context by presidents of the European Union. His piece convincingly demonstrates that notwithstanding Jacques Delors’ reputation as a policy entrepreneur with immense conceptual ambition, his leadership of the EU blended the roles of leader
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and follower in equal measure. Conditioned by context—particularly the preferences of key member states—Delors was crucially able to apply his considerable skills to resolve important policy differences on major issues such as the launch of the single European market in 1985-86, the monetary union negotiation of 1988-92, the Maastricht negotiations, and the single currency. Delors shaped and even created member states’ preferences by the manner in which he matched solutions to problems. Jacques Santer’s leadership style was not as high-powered as Delors’, and ultimately the European Union sacked him and his commissioners. But he notched up several successes, such as the launching of the monetary union on time and with a wider membership than anticipated, and the construction of a highly detailed strategy for EU enlargement. It may be that his cautious style worked better in a changed context than that of Delors. Finally, Bell’s article on French presidents stresses the importance of context, particularly the relatively weak presidency, which must share power with a prime minister who, if he or she belongs to an opposite party, must endure “cohabitation” and movement of policy initiative away from the president. French presidents must be coalition builders and maintainers, always with an eye to the next legislative elections, which can produce “cohabitation.” They must also try to disrupt the main opposition coalition, the leader of which may be the president’s main opponent in the next presidential election. Georges Pompidou’s personal achievement, following upon De Gaulle, was to establish the presidency as the lead institution in the Fifth Republic and to maintain and manage successfully the conservative coalition that supported him; contrastingly, Valéry Giscard D’Estaing proved unable to deploy his considerable skills in the context of a divided supporting coalition; and François Mitterrand demonstrated his consummate tactical ability in building and maintaining a left coalition while espousing centrist modernism. Jacques Chirac, in turn, is a political fixer skillful at reconciling disparate interests rather than a grand visionary. However, he has had difficulty with his own coalition of the right and has had to suffer cohabitation with the socialist leader Lionel Jospin, his rival for the presidency. He has, therefore, had to twist and turn in a tactical dervishness without being able to establish a clear policy direction. We are confident in presenting this volume that the reader will not only appreciate the importance of personal leadership skill in relation to role and context, but accept the challenge we make to develop propositions about the dynamic relations of these three variables. The propositions listed below, distilled for our entire text, are suggestive of the possibilities:
Hargrove and Owens 205 • Skill and role-playing are more effective if reinforced by a favorable political context. However, context may be shaped in part by skill and role-playing. • Political leaders play to their individual talents and select those leadership styles and institutional roles best suited to their talents. But this limits the range of their effectiveness. • Effective political leadership cannot be assessed along a single policy or role dimension. Hence, the achievements of national leaders are invariably uneven. • The national leaders studied here worked in a historical situation common to all, in which partisan coalitions were weak in the 1970’s, were incompletely reaffirmed in the 1980’s, and gave way to a period of flux and uncertainty in the 1990’s. This helps account for the political resources, constraints, and opportunities shared by leaders seeking to exercise leadership at approximately the same times. These six essays are intended to open discussion and further exploration. We encourage others to take on the study of the relations of skill, role, and context without dodging the hard questions. Erwin C. Hargrove, Vanderbilt University John E. Owens, Westminster University
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