Leadership of old

Modern theories of government relish the idea of well-informed leadership. Leaders are expected to make decisions based on correct factual knowledge.  A whole industry of fact-producing institutions has been established to gather and publish societal information: reports, articles and statistics of various kinds. The leader’s task is then to assimilate selected bits of this information and put it to constructive use in the game of politics so that society may be steered in the direction that he or she deems beneficial. Even though the information-processing capacity of one person is very limited and most of the available information may be inaccurate, the ideal remains.

Yet factual and scientific knowledge of society is limited and incomplete, as I strive to show in my other essays. System effects disturb assumptions about simple cause-effect relationships, statistics reflect presuppositions rather than reality and surveys produce inconsistent results with disputable results. In short, there’s a gap between the ideal of informed government and the actual knowledge base which stands at its disposal. Only a part of societal information can be considered “true” in a meaningful sense. This state of affairs will be elaborated in more detail in future essays, but in this one it leads me to this question: assuming for the moment that factual knowledge (i.e. scientific knowledge, objective knowledge) can only play a limited role as a guide for governmental decisions, what other forms of knowledge play a part in political decision-making?

In this essay I’m going to discuss a perspective presented by Woodrow Wilson just over 120 years ago in his essay Leaders of Men. This essay makes for an interesting comparison for two reasons. First, the United States in the late 19th century was a real democracy, so at some level we can expect the requirements of democratic leadership to have been the same back then as they are today. The second reason lies in the crucial difference. Information-producing institutions were much less numerous back then. The idea of societal statistics and measurement was not unknown at the time, but it certainly had not yet gained universal approval and its practical applications still lay in the future.

So the leader Wilson’s describes isn’t a fully informed problem-solver – the idea of technocratic state administration would have seemed strange to most men in this age (socialist revolutionaries aside). Instead Wilson draws his ideals from an older tradition, that of the statesman with experience, charisma and resolve who inspires the people to come together in great deeds. This ideal still lives on today, of course, but what’s interesting about Wilson’s portrayal is its intimate connection to political knowledge. Wilson’s primary theme is the practical knowledge a leader should possess – a form of knowledge which isn’t about remaking society according to a specific model but about steering it. The leader must be able to steer with the current rather than against it.

I suggest that this form of political knowledge has become unfamiliar to modern political theory even though it is still needed and utilized in government today. Leaders of Men contains important truths which apply just as well to present democratic societies as to 19th century America. Wilson’s essay offers an alternative perspective which might describe the epistemological essence of political leadership better than the technocratic ideal we’ve become accustomed to. It helps to reveal a distinction which I think is vital for understanding the role of knowledge in government: the distinction between, first, a kind of knowledge which can be described as articulable, factual and public and, second, a kind of knowledge which is tacit, practical and personal.

The good old ways

Although he writes at length about the art of persuasion that leaders must master, Wilson’s emphasizes the art of listening as well. This is nicely encapsulated in the following sentence: “Men are not led by being told what they don’t know”. A prospective leader who merely pontificates his own views, or those of his experts, stands little chance of being successful unless those views resonate among the people. Wilson writes

Leadership, for the statesman, is interpretation. He must read the common thought: he must test and calculate very circumspectly the preparation of the nation for the next move in the progress of politics.(…) Our temperament is one of logic, let us say. We hold that one and one make two and we see no salvation for the people except they receive the truth. The statesman is of another opinion. One and one doubtless make two, he is ready to admit, but the people think that one and one make more than two and until they see otherwise we shall have to legislate on that supposition. This is not to talk nonsense. (Wilson 1889)

I think this statement hits the nail on the head and is worth a closer analysis. This view of leadership clearly differs from a technocratic view in that a leader adjusts his legislation to suit the people’s belief, even a factually wrong belief in this case. Could there be a more blatant example of misinformed government? Wilson chooses as his example an objective truth, 1+1=2, yet paradoxically states that in terms of political leadership, denying it is not to talk nonsense. So clearly objectivity is not the real issue here. Even if perfectly objective knowledge of society was available, the statesman could still sometimes wisely stray from it to harmonize legislation with popular belief.

The leader must interpret whether or not the nation is prepared to move where the he seeks to guide it. If it is not it may be better to say that one and one makes more than two for now and await a day when it makes two – if that day ever comes. The reason why this is not nonsense is simply that Wilson recognizes how limited the capacity to affect change is against the great stream of public opinion. A political solution is therefore often a compromise, “Uncompromising thought is the luxury of the recluse”. Unlike the recluse, leaders of men must consider public opinion.

No reform may succeed for which the major thought of the nation is not prepared: that the instructed few may not be safe leaders, except in so far as they have communicated their instruction to the many, except in so far as they have transmuted their thought into a common, a popular thought.(Wilson 1889)

One of the things that a technocratic view often downplays is the selective inertia of society and public opinion. Change tends to be slow and the effects of policy decisions become manifest only after months or years. This fact is easily recognized in political life, but it’s consequences for informed government are seldom made clear. Whatever control leaders have of society hinges on their ability to transmute their ideas into common thought. Laws and regulations may be enacted, incentives and disincentives may be put in place, but to be effective the ideas behind them must become known and accepted. Social inertia makes certain changes impossible no matter how certain the data may seem, and vice versa the inertia will be minimal if the change is in the right direction.

This important truth was easier to recognize in Wilson’s time than it is today. Since there wasn’t a wealth of statistics and abstract analysis available on every aspect of society, newly enacted decisions were measured on a very simple yardstick: either they gained acceptance, observance and success among the populace or they failed to do so and became a dead letter. There was a much more reciprocal interaction between public opinion and government in Wilson’s time because the realm of abstract societal expertise had not yet been sequestered from ordinary society. That’s why Wilson speaks of leaders “instructing” the people.

That’s not to say that we should see the lack of societal statistics in an exclusively positive light. There’s no doubt that the rise of societal analysis in the early 20th century provided crucial information for leaders who wanted to combat poverty, unemployment and other social problems effectively. But the question we should ask is this: did abstract societal knowledge replace an intuitive knowledge of public opinion as the primary guide in enlightened government, or is the latter still as important as the former? Let me quote Wilson once more:

Every successful reform movement has had as its efficient cry some principle of equity or morality already accepted well-nigh universally, but not yet universally applied in the affairs of life. Every such movement has been the awakening of a people to see a new field for old principles. These men who stood alone at the inception of the movement and whose voices then seemed as it were the voices of men crying in the wilderness, have in reality been simply the more sensitive organs of Society-the parts first awakened to consciousness of a situation. (Wilson 1889)

What kind of knowledge must a leader possess to be a “sensitive organ of society” and what skill does he need to gain this knowledge? It’s clearly not a matter of knowing the key statistics and having access to the latest social scientific expertise. Instead the key element seems to be an intuitive knowledge of the ebb and flow of new ideas and values among the people. Reform succeeds if its principal components have already been accepted nearly universally before the reform was decided upon, but not yet put into practice. Sensing when the time is right for successful reform is the most important skill a true leader can possess.

I have said that no man thinking thoughts born out of time can succeed in leading his generation, and that successful leadership is a product of sympathy, not of antagonism. I do not believe that any man can lead who does not act, whether it be consciously or unconsciously, under the impulse of a profound sympathy with those whom he leads-a sympathy which is insight-an insight which is of the heart rather than of the intellect. (Wilson 1889)

This metaphor of using the heart rather than the intellect aptly summarizes the difference I have accentuated here. In 19th century America administration could not be technocratic since a quantitative “science of society” did not yet exist. Nevertheless administrators did not have to act in complete blindness and reform society at random. They could draw on another form of societal knowledge, one which is as old as society itself. We might call it personal knowledge gained by direct experience. It’s a dispersed form of knowledge in that all members of society possess it. It’s also a form of knowledge which grows and changes through public and private communication, in the media, the family, the coffeehouse, the workplace and any other site where people interact. Yet any one person’s share of it can only be partial as he or she can comprehend only a small fraction of other people’s thoughts.

Wilson’s ideal leader is sensitive to this elusive form of knowledge which tends to escape precise specification. We could call it public opinion, but its true character is closer to being private than public. It cannot be tracked by polls because no set of questions can capture it in all its multiplicity. Nevertheless at least some of its threads are accessible to the able leader in the political, civic and business discourse and the flow of news, opinions and rumours which around them. One of the central differences between the United States and Europe in the late 19th century in fact lies precisely here: the culture of free speech and a plural civil society developed earlier in the US. That’s why a late 19th century American leader could sympathise not just with the plight of the people but with their opinions. This is a crucial difference.

What’s happening

Today the situation is different in that most democracies are open societies where opinions and ideas abound. But diversity of opinion is discounted in favor of supposedly objective opinion. Perhaps society has increased so much in complexity that the shift from Wilson’s personal knowledge to today’s technocratic knowledge was inevitable, but this has obscured a valuable lesson in Wilson’s view of leadership: since a leader cannot expect to exercise total control of society he must not only make things happen but also know what’s happening. Furthermore, he does not learn what’s happening from the latest figures and expert analyses but from “reading the common thought”, as Wilson puts it.

The fact is that for all the statistics, theories and data we have today, social life still steers its own course beyond the observation and control of political administration. The actions of individuals are based on preferences and decisions which administrators will always remain ignorant of. I don’t mean to say that political decisions are without effects: draconian taxation will certainly discourage and retard its target just as surely as generous incentives and support programs will encourage their targets. But the point is that the detailed workings of such cause-effect relationships are beyond technocratic observation and control. No one can predict in advance what the final consequences of a political decision will be or know in retrospect exactly what they were. They can be researched historically, as I wrote in Other things not being equal, but like all historical research this is an interpretative undertaking where no certain truths are to be found.

But even though we cannot measure or observe how ideas and values come to be and disappear, how they inflate and deflate in society and how they affect human behaviour, we still know that this is occurring all around us. In an open society we even know that it occurs partly in public. This process is much too complex to be comprehended in full by any one person, but it can certainly be comprehended in part and we have good reason to believe that the person who interacts with a wide variety of people, who interprets a wide variety of opinions, has a better inkling of what’s happening than the person whose interactions are fewer.

Leaders, by definition, exercise power. This puts them in a special position when it comes to “reading the common thought”. They don’t have to seek out opinions, opinions seek them out. The difficulty task which a wilsonian leader then faces is discriminating between opinions which have gained acceptance among the people at large and opinions which only represent narrow interests. The point I have tried to make in this essay is that no expert, no political or social scientist can help the wilsonian leader in this interpretive process. The knowledge to be gained from interpretation can not be condensed to graphs, numbers or indexes. Much of what I wrote in Misinterpreted mismeasures applies here just as well. Social reality is so complex that we are doing ourselves a disservice if we insist on reducing it to objective data. As Wilson writes, it’s the heart that reads the common thought, not the intellect. Sometimes one and one just has to make more than two if a policy measure is to be effective.

In future essays I intend to argue that this form of interpretive knowledge can profitably be described as tacit knowledge, which I contrast with the factual knowledge of statistics, figures and graphs. Factual knowledge is indispensable for political administration today, there’s no disputing that. But by itself it is, and always will be, insufficient. No society has ever been technocratically administered by brute calculation, and no society ever will be. So there must be elements in successful government which extend beyond the realm of objective expertise. In this essay I have sought to elucidate these elements by drawing wisdom from a time when the notion of objective societal expertise had not yet been invented, or at least not fitted with the prestige it enjoys today.

I want to conclude by saying that most of what happens in society is neither measurable nor controllable, but it is understandable. We can interpret and understand other peoples’ opinions, their ideas and values and the actions they take. The task of interpreting them falls with especial weight on leaders who seek to carry out beneficial reforms. The difficult part of leadership isn’t gaining mastery of societal facts. Most leaders have an army of experts at their disposal who are more than happy to inform the leader of important facts and their views on the right course of action. The difficult part is interpretation, because

Politics must follow the actual windings of the channel of the river: if it steers by the stars it will run aground. (Wilson 1889)


Woodrow Wilson (1889): Leaders of Men

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