Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

5 November 2014

What makes a great leader? Is it about resolve, strength of character or even something as simple as likeability? Is it about being a shrewd politician behind the scenes or about being charismatic and mesmerising on the public stage? Can a great leader be born in any era or does fate or coincidence or whatever you want to call it play any role at all?

London’s mayor, Boris Johnson (by his own admission quite a long way from being a “great leader” himself), has just published a book looking at the life and political career of Winston Churchill, brought out to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the former British prime minister’s death.

Talking about the man in a recent interview on the BBC, Johnson said he thought Churchill was “a one-off, a historical anomaly and it was the most weird fluke that he just happened to be there in the driving seat in 1940, exactly when he was needed.” So, cometh the hour, cometh the man, I suppose?

This raises an intriguing question and one that touches on countless critical assessments of Barack Obama: is a leader defined by the era in which he or she lives or do they possess something that transcends that?

President Obama is considered by many to be a ditherer: the “professor-in-chief” as one of his biographers nicknamed him; altogether too scholarly, too balanced, too timid. But when you consider how quickly he leapt to launch air strikes on Isis in Syria and Iraq in September, you have to pause for thought.

The rest of the problems that Obama has faced since he took office in 2008 have been complicated, murky and ambiguous: the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that he had no hand in starting, a domestic political opposition willing to sabotage government to bring about his downfall. In other words, nothing has been black-and-white for Obama.

What Churchill faced was an existential threat unlike anything witnessed by a modern politician. This threat made it clear – “easy” would be the wrong word – which way he had to turn and what decision needed to be taken. Perhaps in a few years, when the historical biographies of Obama begin to hit the bookshop shelves, we will reassess his time in power and his supposed dithering.

His era hasn’t really allowed him to be the leader he could have been. He hasn’t had a 1940 to raise him up to the heights of historical greatness. Just a series of conundrums worthy of a professor-in-chief.

Matt Alagiah is a researcher/writer for Monocle.

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