The Longing for Moral Authority, the Right Kind of Leaders, and Fuehrer-figures

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote about the longing modern people have for “a leader but the right kind of leader” recently.  In describing this kind of leader, he was writing about the human longing for a someone they can follow who breaks conventions, and is able to satisfy the craving for “genuine leadership” and “moral authority,” rather than (presumably) the leadership that resorts to police violence, craven manipulation, bureaucratic smallness, and deceit.  Friedman was of course writing in the wake of Nelson Mandela, a man who along with a very few others met this high standard.  Friedman wrote:

 What is striking, though, is the fact that none of these “Tahrir Square movements” have built sustainable democratic alternatives yet. That is a big, hard project, and it can only be done together. And it turns out that generating that unity of purpose and focus still requires a leader, but the right kind of leader.

“People are rejecting leaders who rule by the formal authority of their position and command by hierarchical power,” said Seidman, but “they are craving genuine leadership — leaders who lead by their moral authority to inspire, to elevate others and to enlist us in a shared journey.”

Friedman is not the first to note that humans seek such charismatic leadership.  And occasionally a few such charismatic leaders emerge.  Among those who would meet this criteria are people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, etc.  People a little bit older than me say that the American Presidents Roosevelt and Kennedy had such magnetism, too.  France also seems to have a tradition of such figures emerging: Charles De Gaulle, Napoleon, also come to mind. Joan of Arc is a more distant figure able to call people to action on the basis of such “genuine leadership,” and transform the trajectory of history.  In business, people like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs from Apple Computer also seem to have such a capacity to lead, seemingly in spite of “the rules.”

As I wrote earlier, the classical German sociologist Max Weber wrote about this quality of genuine leadership, too.  All the European countries at end of the debacle that was World War I craved such leadership; they believed that their recent leaders lacked such capacity, which is what caused World War I.  In this context, leaders from the right and left emerged seeking to seize control, and rule through an assertion of “moral authority.”  The charismatic leaders of the streets Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht flashed and faded on the scene in Berlin, and quickly faded. Other figures emerged and faded in Munich.  What happened in Russia was of course longer lasting: Lenin, Trotsky, and others seized power by asserting political power, and eventually created the Soviet Union.  Mussolini was to take power in Italy in the early 1920s.

The German language provided Weber with a special word to describe this special type of leader which emerges, as Friedman writes, from outside the ranks of formal hierarchy.  Rule is through moral authority, a quality which makes Mandela’s journey so amazing.

The German word Weber used in 1919 is of course Führer, a word appropriated in the 1930s by Adolf Hitler.  I am wrestling with how to translate this word in to modern English.  In its classical meaning it certainly applies to the type of leadership that Nelson Mandela exerted from the jail cells of Robben Island, and later from the Presidency of South Africa.  But as the example of Hitler (and others) point out, in the heart of any Führerdom lurks danger.  I can’t help but think that Friedman’s column would have been enriched by the use of such a word which encapsulates not only the thrill of what happened in South Africa and Tahrir Square, but also the rallies of Nuremberg.  Because in ways that are both frightening and exciting, the very human longing for a Führerdom contains the seeds of both liberation via charismatic leaders Mandelas, Gandhis, and Jobs of this world, as well as the catastrophes of equally charismatic leaders like Napoleon, Lenin, and Hitler.