Opinion

Bad leadership is the greatest tragedy of human life. It's time to give the people a shot

The quality of leaders throughout the ages has been disastrous for the world and humankind. Is there another way?

A 19th century engraving of the entry of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée into Moscow in 1812

A 19th century engraving of the entry of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s Grande Armée into Moscow in 1812. Image: Archive Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

I am within 10,000 words of the end of the book I have spent years writing. I have been asked by my agent, who now has to sell it, what in my opinion was the theme, the purpose, the lesson of my book – that is, if it has a lesson and is not just a piece of entertainment. He asked me this because he was looking for a purpose for the book, knowing I was trying to share wisdom and not simply be a page-turner among many page-turners that just keep the reader busy for a period of time.  

I had to pluck something from the air, yet I could not. Just could not, say what the book is about. I’ve explained that it’s about bits of my autobiography, and historical figures, and an imaginary mob of fairies. But how can I extract an elevator pitch, or the kind of blurb that goes on the back of a book, from the twisting labyrinthine story I have painted?  

But as bed and the early morning hours have always proved the most fecund times of my day, I suddenly realised in the early hours of a day last week: the topic of my book was that the ‘greatest tragedy of human life’ – and it has many – is human leadership. The qualities of our leaders from time immemorial have been the undoing of us humans.  

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I was reminded of this when I saw laudatory pages in The Guardian and Telegraph, The Times and the Financial Times announcing the new film Napoleon by Ridley Scott. And The Guardian had a particularly brooding photo of Joaquin Phoenix pretending to be Napoleon for the cameras. The man who after the French Revolution that had banned slavery, brought slavery back. And marched on Moscow and caused the death of hundreds of thousands of French people, not to mention hundreds of thousands of other Europeans. And thousands in North Africa and the Levant.  

A churner-up of history, presumably to improve the chances of France dominating the world and remaking Europe in France’s own interest.  And now, at a time when David Cameron returns to lead again in British politics in a secondary role, we have a great big creature from a past historical epoch to fill us full of awe.  

I remember, just leaving school as a teenage boy, being in awe of Hitler and Napoleon as decisive men who dominated the lives of others. This kind of murderous leadership was attractive to a boy at the bottom of the social pile, uneducated and loutish, disinterested in anything other than the pursuit of girls and other people’s property. I was an absence rather than a presence and the allure of men who pushed and murdered the world into a new shape for their own benefit was a great drug.  

So, provided for me in those early hours last week, was the idea that my book was really about the way that the leaders of the world, and the history thrown up, may have created some peace and prosperity, but it was always riddled with pain and suffering and death.  

That leaders often lead people into a death trap. And that murder, mayhem and destruction flow from such events. Current events once again provide us with evidence that the politics of leaders and their manoeuvrings often lead to exposure and to death.  

But I could not leave this rather mad conclusion that leaders, in history, led us to death. They also led us to light. Led us out of things. Churchill helped to lead us from the threats of Hitler and his deeds into a postwar peace that could spend time building a welfare state and increasing prosperity for people who previously had none.

Elvis Presley would not have been possible for us had there not been some tranquillity and prosperity. And all of the postwar indulgences that many more people could fill their time with, crescendoing of course with The Beatles, and on to our modern pop extravaganza of consumerism. Phones and flatscreen TVs. All the razzamatazz of modern existence.  

And then profoundly punctured because of some poor leadership from Liz Truss that collapsed people’s living standards at a time of high inflation.  

Leadership, leadership, leadership: all dominating our direction, towards and away from stability. The fact that no one has, as yet, started to work constructively on dismantling and preventing poverty causes me to want to show leadership, by trying to get the government to take seriously my idea of a Ministry of Poverty Prevention.  

Leadership is all – but so is compliance. Compliance of the masses of people who take leadership from some pretty ropey people. Even Putin, sitting in his apparently insurmountable fortress, relies on the compliance of people who passed him the mantle to do things his way.  

What we must remember is that no leader is ever in power without the compliance of people, voters or supporters; pliant people who leave the leadership to others.  

And the billionaires who so upset us all with their big ways and poor leadership are there largely because we bought and continue to buy something from them.  

It’s the people, the billions, who buy, and subscribe, and acquiesce; and make the leaders safe in their castles and fortresses of political power or wealth.  

My book, I suppose, is about a new leadership that’s not from the rotten lot who run the show now. Perhaps even the people leading themselves.   

To be discussed.   

John Bird is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Big Issue. Read more of his words here.

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