Reading Kissinger on leadership

October 19, 2022 11:36
Photo: Amazon

I had the rare pleasure of taking a brief break from work last weekend.

So what did I do? I brought along two books – one of which was Kissinger’s latest, Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy, and spent a healthy few hours on a beach, pouring over the pages whilst shielding myself from the excruciating sun. What was by far less missable – and substantially more dazzling – was Kissinger’s wisdom.

The book was a thorough, riveting volume that comprised six profiles – historically detailed, well-researched and -evidenced, and, above all, profoundly astute sketches of the trajectories of six remarkable leaders in world history: Adenauer, de Gaulle, Nixon, Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Thatcher. Six fantastic statesmen that led their countries through tribulations and tumultuous times. And six intellectuals that carried with them a distinctive legacy that we could all draw from – what, then, you may ask, is the legacy? Here are a few distillations I’d extracted from the compendium:

First, true leaders know their times and surroundings. Adenauer eschewed moral retributivism and ideological purity in order to steer Germany to rebuild in the aftermath of the atrocities committed by it during World War 2. He had sought to rekindle ties with de Gaulle’s France, but also to ingratiate West Germany with members of the Warsaw Pact (albeit not Russia per se) through apologising for wartime atrocities. Through these gestures, he took to affirming and committing towards rehabilitating Germany’s image on the world stage – indeed, taking to fostering robust trans-Atlantic relations between Germany and America whilst delicately entertaining the concerns and reservations from the United Kingdom and France, over an economically rejuvenating Germany. As he decided upon his seminal visit to China and the unthawing of Sino-American relations, Nixon was acting with the full knowledge of the implications this would have on not just US’ relationships with its allies in light of the Cold War, but also how the US-USSR relationship would now be subtly molded (in US’ favour) upon the triangulation of the great power conflict. True leaders understand and seize the day – they truly ‘carpe diem’, in tracking the ebbs and flows of history.

Second, leadership requires an understanding of the audience. Leaders must be prepared to read the room. That is to say – they cannot lean into their preexisting prejudices or biases, nor assume that popular will is either forsaken, or a given. De Gaulle did not gain his popularity through a natural charisma – though that certainly played a role. His movement gained traction through his ability to speak to the anxieties and vexations of the wartime French population, one that was sick and fed up of the lies fed to them by the Vichy collaborators; but also his ability to secure support from overseas French populations, who viewed him as a symbol of strength and stamina in face of adversities. Lee Kuan Yew was ruthlessly efficient and intellectually profound in his expounding of a vision of a Singapore that was inclusive of the people in some sense – their interests are well taken care of; whilst maintaining a fundamental steel grip over the country’s civil society. Neither Lee Kuan Yew nor De Gaulle should be conceived as a dictator – indeed, they exhibited substantial restraint and prudence in their approach to leadership, opting to place their people first, empower them second, and fundamentally center their policies and rhetoric around the interests of their denizens.

Finally, true leadership – as Kissinger repeatedly affirmed – required intellectual depth. Despite attempts on the part of certain successors (certainly not so successful) over recent years to emulate her tenure, Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as Prime Minister saw her introduce a radical, groundbreaking, and transformative doctrine that put an end to the devastating labour-capitalist relations that had been introduced under the tenures of Wilson and Callahan. Thatcher did not give in when it came to pushing back against ossified unions and economic inefficiencies – she was both pragmatic and ideologically consistent. Similarly, Sadat, as Kissinger pinpointedly observed, cut his teeth amidst an era of mass turbulence and nationalism in his native Egypt – and came to command both romanticism and sentimentalism in his articulation of a more autonomous, modern, and visionary country that was capable of taking on the combination of colonialists and Western imperialist forces. He never yielded nor gave into the pressures to capitulate fully, even during (or despite) the Suez crisis.

Leadership requires a sturdy character, an iron resolve, and a willingness to transition in and between the leader qua a statesman and qua a prophet – or, as Isaiah Berlin puts it, as a hedgehog and fix. If only more leaders alive today could heed Kissinger’s advice on this front, and then some… Our world would be a far less incoherent place.

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Assistant Professor, HKU