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Henry Kissinger on Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy

Henry Kissinger Leadership

IN A SOCIETY’S transition between the past and the future, leadership is indispensable. “For strategies to inspire the society, leaders must serve as educators—communicating objectives, assuaging doubts and rallying support,” writes Henry Kissinger in Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy.

Leaders are subject to the constraints of their time, but they are also architects of the future. “Strategy arises from these constraints and uncertainty. “Strategy describes the conclusion a leader reaches under these conditions of scarcity, temporality, competition, and fluidity. In finding the way ahead, strategic leadership may be likened to traversing a tightrope: just as an acrobat will fall if either too timid or too audacious, a leader is obliged to navigate within a narrow margin, suspended between the relative certainties of the past and the ambiguities of the future.”

Churchill captured these ambiguities and the need for a leader’s judgment when he wrote in The Gathering Storm; “Statesmen are not called upon only to settle easy questions. These often settle themselves. It is where the balance quivers, and the proportions are veiled in midst, that the opportunity for world-saving decisions presents itself.”

Leadership is most essential during periods of transition, when values and institutions are losing their relevance, and the outlines of a worthy future are in controversy. In such times, leaders are called upon to think creatively and diagnostically.

Kissinger offers an interesting discussion of transformational leaders and categorizes them into two types: the statesman and the prophet. The statesman has two tasks. First, “is to preserve their society by manipulating circumstances rather than being overwhelmed by them,” and second “is to temper vision with wariness, entertaining a sense of limits.”

The prophet “treats prevailing institutions less from the perspective of the possible than from a vision of the imperative. The virtue of the prophets is that they define what appears possible. Believing in ultimate solutions, prophetic leaders tend to distrust gradualism as an unnecessary concession to time and circumstance; their goal is to transcend, rather than manage, the status quo.”

All of the six of the leaders he profiles were a bit of both, but they all leaned toward the statesmanlike.

He then asks if the individual makes a difference. Do they matter? He concludes yes. “They mattered because they transcended the circumstances they inherited and thereby carried their societies to the frontiers of the possible.

The six leaders, all of whom he knew personally, profiled here are:

Kissinger Leaders

Konrad Adenauer: The Strategy of Humility

Adenauer was the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II and the first leader of the Christian Democratic Union. His strategy of humility is evidenced by the fact that he acknowledged Germany’s great crimes in a way that was compatible with Germany’s unconditional surrender. He said that “the Germans could find their way toward a better future only by coming to terms with their past. His views were not always popular, but they paved the way for their full integration into Europe. “He was determined to turn submission into a virtue, and he saw that a temporary inequality of conditions was the precondition to equality of status.”

Charles de Gaulle: The Strategy of Will

Despite France’s humiliating defeat at the beginning of World War II, de Gaulle believed they still deserved a prominent seat at the table of world leaders. “De Gaulle presented himself as the emissary of destiny, whose task it was to reclaim France’s national greatness.” His “vision outpaced his nation’s understanding,” but his will and his “commanding, aloof, passionate, committed, visionary, ineffably patriotic” personality forged the destiny of France.

Richard Nixon: The Strategy of Equilibrium

Nixon “adjusted America’s role from faltering dominance to creative leadership,” and that approach guided much of the U.S. approach in the post-Cold War period. He adopted a strategy of equilibrium—a balance of power as a prerequisite for peace—to get America out of Vietnam, open relations with China, and began a peace process that would transform the Middle East. “Nixon’s strengths as a statesman resided at the two ends of geopolitical strategy: analytical rigor in design and great boldness in execution.” He was able to adjust America’s role in the world “from faltering dominance to creative leadership.” Kissinger explains, “A Nixonian flexibility, at once realistic and creative, is needed for American foreign policy” today.

Anwar Sadat: The Strategy of Transcendence

Sadat “inoculated himself against the conventional wisdom of his time and thus transcended ideologies that, for decades, had contorted the Middle East and bled Egypt dry.” Sadat was able to demonstrate that it was possible to transcend the pattern of recent history. “His triumphs were mainly conceptual in nature, and their mentation was truncated by his assassination,” Kissinger observes. “Sadat’s overall vision was too out of joint with that of his colleagues and contemporaries to be sustained. What survived him were the practical elements that he considered ephemeral.”

Lee Kuan Yew: The Strategy of Excellence

Any discussion of Lee Kuan Yew’s leadership is worth a read. He was the founder and long-time prime minister of the city-state of Singapore between 1959 and 1990. Lee’s strategy of excellence was to permeate not just government but every level of society. That excellence would knit together his society despite their differences. “Lee’s ultimate gift to his multi-ethnic people was his unremitting faith that they were their own greatest resource, that they had the capacity to unlock possibilities in themselves that they had not known existed.” The development of Singapore is a remarkable success story. Speaking of governmental policies, Lee said, “I was never a prisoner of any theory. What guided me were reason and reality. The acid test I applied to every theory or science was, would it work?” Kissinger concludes:

Most significantly, Lee’s statesmanship illustrates that the best determinants of a society’s fate are neither its material wealth nor other conventional measures of power but rather the quality of its people and the vision of its leaders.

Margaret Thatcher: The Strategy of Conviction

Thatcher, prime minister of Britain between 1979 and 1990, defined the era in which she governed. She “labored to cast off the shackles that had limited her predecessors—particularly the nostalgia for lost imperial glories and the abiding regret of national decline. The Britain that emerged as a result of her leadership was, to the world, a newly confident nation, and to America, a valued partner in the late Cold War.” Kissinger states that “At the heart of her successes lay personal fortitude.” Fortitude in that she departed “so dramatically from the received wisdom of the time,” and she had the character to stay the “course consistently as her tough medicine drew sharp complaint from the patient.”

All of the leaders profiled came from humble origins, which gave them a long-term perspective. “Their origins and experiences far from power lent them perspective, allowing them to articulate the national interest and transcend the conventional wisdom of their day.” They were steeped from their childhood in values like “personal discipline, self-improvement, charity, patriotism and self-belief.”

We have let down future leaders. Our secondary schools and universities shortchange them. They offer little in the way of history or philosophy, which are the “traditional wellsprings of the statesman’s imagination.” Kissinger sadly notes that while our schools “remain very good at educating activists and technicians, they have wandered from their mission of forming citizens.”

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 08:28 PM
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