Moshik Temkin is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership and History at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His most recent book is Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X.
Leadership is not a formula. It’s not something that happens in a vacuum. It’s not just something that you can declare about yourself.
- Introduction – 0:45
- What is Leadership? 3:12
- Powerless Leadership – 11:58
- Ethics of Leadership – 24:10
- Ordinary Leadership – 40:16
Modern politics has diminished the importance of leaders. It’s easy to view them with disdain or even mistrust. Recent political movements and revolutions are notable for their absence of leaders. But it’s a mistake to believe leaders have no value. Zelensky has demonstrated the importance of leadership in Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression. On the other hand, Putin has shown how the wrong leaders can abuse their power. My point is leaders still matter, so it’s necessary to understand leadership to understand politics or even democracy.
Moshik Temkin is a Distinguished Visiting Professor of Leadership and History at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. His most recent book is Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X.
Moshik and I discuss leadership as a big picture idea, but also through examples. It’s a conversation that weaves together figures as diverse as Indian independence figures Mahatma Gandhi and B.R. Ambedkar along with Women’s Suffrage Leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But Moshik also believes leadership exists in everyone in different ways. It’s an important conversation with important implications.
If you like the podcast, please give the show a 5-star rating and review. It sounds silly, but it makes a really big difference for independent shows like mine. If you belong to an organization or a company and would like to partner with the podcast, please reach out. I’d love to talk. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. But for now… This is my conversation with Moshik Temkin…
Moshik Temkin, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Well, Moshik, I really loved your recent book, Warriors, Rebels, Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X. It’s a topic that I think should really be discussed a lot more when we think about politics whether we do it in political science or history. I mean, leaders involve so much of what happens in the world, yet we talk about leadership so little when we think about politics, particularly when we’re thinking about it as a science or in academia. In current events we talk about leaders all the time, but we don’t always think about it as leadership. We just talk about the leaders themselves.
I imagine that as you’ve learned about leaders, it’s not just from these historical examples. So, I’d like to start out on a bit more of a personal note and like to get a sense from you about who is a leader who influenced you as a person and as a result really taught you about what leadership means and what leadership is?
Yeah, thank you, Justin. That’s a really good question. Let me start by just addressing the first comments you made. I think you’re absolutely right. We talk a lot about politics. We live in a political world, but we tend to downplay leaders and leadership as if it’s something separate from that. I think there are a couple of reasons for that. One is I think we’ve almost all accepted a kind of lack of expectation from our political so-called leaders to really stand out as leaders. So, we have an image of important or great leaders from the past, and we compare our supposed leaders in the present to them and our present leaders tend to really come up short. So, I think that’s one thing that’s happening.
Another thing is that in my experience a lot of the folks who are teaching about leadership, writing about leadership, are actually writing a lot about the world outside of politics. They’re writing about business. They’re writing about management. If you just peruse the shelves, it’s often about success – success in finance, success in this or that. That’s not exactly what leadership means. So, I think that that is another element that’s going on here. So, for me, I think I wanted to bring leaders and leadership back into the center of our conversations and our discussions about what it means to live in our world today and especially how to face the challenges that we have. So, that’s a little bit at the origins of how this book came about.
Of course, years of teaching this to students who were clamoring for better leadership and even trying to understand how they themselves could be the leaders that we need inspired me to start teaching and then to start writing about this in a serious way. In terms of the personal aspect, we all have, or at least I was lucky to have strong support from my family. I think of my grandmothers. I think of my parents. I think of people around me who I didn’t think of them as leaders, but I now realize they were leading me in a way to things that help me today that led me to where I am. I also sometimes think of my mentors, teachers as early as elementary school.
Some of the things that are in the book, I can date back as far as 5th grade, 6th grade, things that I learned in school. Of course, I hope it’s a little bit more sophisticated than that, but that’s really where the genesis is. Then finally, I’ve come to the conclusion that leaders, true leaders, are not necessarily the most famous people. I could name names, but they wouldn’t ring a bell to any of the listeners because leaders can come in all forms. They can be the person who really stepped up when you needed it. They can be the person who helped the community when there’s a crisis. So, I see leadership all around me, Justin. It’s just a matter of recognizing these people and trying to help them, follow them, because they can lead us to good things.
Yeah, I think your answer says a lot because you’ve emphasized the fact that just about everybody at one moment or another in their lives is going to be in a position where they need to step up and act as a leader. For many people, it’s going to be within their family. If you have children, if you have kids, even as a grandparent, you might be acting as a leader of your family at different moments – a lot of moments, to be honest. But other people are going to have moments to act as leaders within their circle of friends, within their wider community, within movements. Some people are going to be in formal positions of leadership. Some people are going to be in professional positions of leadership.
I see tons of books about leadership. You already mentioned the fact that we read a lot about leadership. It’s a topic that seems to fall under the business section more often than the history section or the political science section or even the politics section. I think of people who write about leadership being people like Brené Brown and anybody who’s gone to school for business, especially if you’re getting an MBA, they talk about leadership a lot. They don’t talk a lot about leadership in programs for political science or for history these days. What is it that we get wrong when we try to study leadership or when we read books or we try to understand what leadership is? What is it that we’re really getting wrong? What is it that we’re missing out on?
So to be fair, or in defense of that, it’s a cottage industry, Justin, is what it is because you really see a lot of books that are about leadership in business and they have a specific kind of twist to them. All of them, because there’s sometimes positive portrayals, there’s sometimes negative or critical portrayals, but they really focus on the individual. They’re really about the success or even the failure, but usually the success of a particular individual. The idea behind a lot of these books, I don’t want to generalize too much, but if I had to find a common theme, it’s that here’s the story of someone who through sheer force of will and ruthless intelligence was able to overcome obstacles and make their own way and succeed. They did it by almost pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.
Now, whether we have a positive view of the protagonist of a particular book like that or a negative view what they do have in common is the power, the individual power, to do good or not good. I think that that’s very important. Of course, my book deals with individual leaders and it has stories about particular great leaders in history as well. I’m not immune to that, but what it loses sight of is the broader forces in the wider world that really creates this kind of leadership in the first place and produces that leadership. So, for me, the question at the heart of my book was, does the leader make history or does history make the leader? I think it’s that interaction.
By that I really mean we see leaders who step into a particular situation in history and they change it. They change the world sometimes. But we also see that it’s changes in the world, events, crises, wars, conflict, that then leaders, even famous leaders, emerge from those moments. So, I think that type of book that you’re talking about, of course, deals a little bit with events, but it doesn’t take enough into account, for example, how much can we attribute individual success to the qualities and traits of a particular individual.
If you take factors such as, who is this person? Where were they born? Who their family was? What kind of wealth did their family have? What kind of educational opportunities did they have? Did they grow up in a society that was a relatively peaceful society or did they grow up in a society that was shattered? You know, crisis, war, poverty, those things really matter and I don’t mean to say that other writers don’t deal with those things, but I wanted to talk about individual leadership in this context and talk about how we can look at individual leadership and understand it better in moments of crisis, in moments of conflict, and how these sorts of events and history itself is shaping the leadership that then we talk about and write about.
I find it interesting how you mentioned that a lot of people who write about leadership focus on the power that a leader has and the exercising of that power. Because a lot of the characters, a lot of the case studies, in your book focus on leaders who are powerless. Leaders who are working in undemocratic situations, that are fighting against tyranny. Leaders who were fighting for social causes that are outside of formal lanes of power, but are demonstrating just remarkable heroic demonstrations of what leadership is. Can you talk a little bit about how that type of leadership is very different than the leadership that we normally think of, such as a political leader that’s a president or a prime minister? What makes that type of leader who’s powerless different than the traditional forms of leadership?
So, I think you’re absolutely right. I mean, I think the book has those different types that you mentioned. I have a chapter on FDR and the Great Depression. FDR is a president and he’s elected four times by the American people the worst times of crisis that we’ve known as Americans in modern history. He has many challenges, of course, and he can’t do whatever he wants, but he has power. He has formal institutional national power. He’s the president. So, this is a particular kind of dynamic that’s really interesting for me to study. That’s just one example from the book. But then what do we do when we have some power, not a lot of power?
So, for example, the suffragists, women’s suffragists fighting for the right to vote. They can’t vote, so they have no political power as such. They can’t even get elected at a national level because they have no right to be elected at a national level. However, they’re not totally without power. They’re citizens. They have networks. They have education. They have eloquence. They have media. They sometimes have money. They have friends in high places and sometimes in less than high places. They have numbers. They have a moral cause. They have commitment. They have determination. They have sometimes the means to organize. They don’t have the power of an FDR or a king or a general or a CEO of some multinational corporation, but they have other forms of power that they can use.
So, I was really interested because very few of my students and readers will become a king or a president. Some might, and I hope some of them do, but that’s rare. Very often we find ourselves in life in situations where we have some power. We’re not completely powerless, but if we want to exercise leadership, how do we do it without being at the head of a state? We’re somewhere in between the highest and the lowest part of the hierarchy. So, I’m very interested in that. I think that responds to in that case that I gave, the suffragists. It’s a success story in a sense, because it ends with the passage of the 19th amendment. I wanted to see how that happened.
But then we have another category, Justin, which I think is really important. It is when you have no power. So, for example, in a situation of a dictatorship. Let’s say you’re living in Nazi occupied France in 1941. If you try to resist, if you try to fight against the regime, the puppet regime collaborating with Nazi Germany, you’ll get imprisoned or killed. In fact, everybody who would resist assumed that they would get imprisoned or killed. It wasn’t even like a risk. It was an assumption. So, they go into it knowing that and that’s true of many cases that we see of people fighting against tyranny, different kinds of oppression, dictatorships all over the world, including in our own day.
These are people who have really nothing except the human spirit, sometimes a minimal ability to organize, a just cause, and then sort of the resources and the improvisation and the creativity that we do possess. I wanted to see how you exercise power in that situation. So, one case I look at it is occupied Europe in World War II, but another case is the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, which lasted 30 years in the 1930s and the 1960s. These were people who rebelled and fought against him and they had no power. But in the end, they succeeded because he was gone.
So, when we’re thinking about leaders who have limited power or no power – I don’t know – the suffragettes and somebody like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, people like that. They have a situation that they recognize needs to be changed. In some ways, people could say that situation defines who that leader becomes. In another way, many women looked at that situation and said there’s no opportunity here. There’s nothing for me to do. I mean, the hill is too high to climb. So, others might say that those leaders who fought for women’s suffrage created an opportunity that did not previously exist. That’s another way that we could think about it. Where do you fall in that debate? Do you think that situations define leaders or do you think that leaders create opportunities for leadership?
You know, it’s actually a great debate, Justin, and the reason it’s a great debate is because there is no definitive answer to the debate. That’s why we can have this debate and it enriches us to have these kinds of conversations. But I want to take your question seriously. So, the suffragists are an interesting example. Think of Elizabeth Cady Stanton or any one of these really early suffragists. They get together for a weekend in bucolic upstate New York in 1848 in July. Think about who can actually go up for a nice weekend in July, 1848 to bucolic upstate New York? Well, certain kinds of women, not all women. These are women who have opportunity. They have privilege. Maybe they have wealth. You know, these are the lucky few.
So, there is sometimes in the use of one’s privilege, one’s status within a society to open the door where maybe others cannot do it and then others can walk through. But I don’t want to say that that’s always the case. I think that here in the case of the suffragists that was a four-generation struggle. It didn’t happen overnight. It’s from 1848 to 1920 and it’s a continuous struggle that for many, as you point out, seemed like this is never going to happen. There’s always going to be a reason why it’s not going to happen. That’s one thing. Then the other thing is, she has to go up there and say something which to us sounds like the most banal thing in the world. Because if Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, all men are created equal, all men and women are created equal.
Now, we’re in 2023, and with very few exceptions, people are going to listen to that and say, ‘Well, yeah, duh, all men and women are created equal. Who would contest that?’ Somebody has to say that for the first time publicly to make it a thing and then to fight for something which to us, we might take it for granted today. But without the original struggle and the idea of being put forth as a rallying cry, then we can’t even understand ourselves in our own day. That’s the legacy of leadership. So, I think that’s a really important thing that these suffragists do is that they change the whole conversation. They put something on the table, which then never goes away.
We often take for granted today many things that leaders in the past did or struggles that happened that we might not even be aware of or if we are aware of it, we’re not appreciative enough of what needed to be done to get this accomplished. That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, again, these suffragists don’t come out of the blue. They don’t fall on us from the sky. They’re the products of social changes in American life. So, you can’t understand the rise of these elite suffragists without understanding deeper changes in the lives of women in the United States, including the educational change, including the role of their professional changes, the urbanization that happened in the United States, the rise of women’s colleges, just to give a specific example.
There are many other factors that go into this without which the individuals that we talk about don’t make sense because individuals and society or structures, if you want to use a kind of a jargon term, are always an interaction. I think that is the best way for us to understand leadership and the importance of leadership, especially transformational leadership.
In your book, you’re focusing on people largely that do good. They’re given the categorization of being good leaders. But a lot of the thought about leadership thinks about it almost like a process, kind of like it’s agnostic to the social outcomes or even the intentions of the leader. It’s more of a skill that can be used for good or evil. Do you think of leadership as something that truly is agnostic or is there a normative element to leadership? Does a leader need to work for the good of society for them to be a good leader or is somebody potentially a good leader even though they’re working for terrible causes like a dictator, like, I don’t know, the worst example would be Adolf Hitler? Is he somebody who’s a good leader even though he’s an evil person?
Well, it’s amazing that Hitler has a tendency to wind his way into almost every one of these conversations because he is a really challenging example for us as are others. So that’s another really good question. Just a couple of ways to answer it. One is I use the term leaders in two different senses. One is in a neutral sense, which is just to signify people who are in particular positions. So, it’s authority positions, you could say, Are the country’s leaders X or Y or Z? That’s just a statement about who’s in power or who is at the head of an organization.
So, there’s a neutral way of using the term, but then there’s what you call the normative way, which is. to talk about leadership as a quality, as something significant. There I do have expectations. So, one of the things that we learned from Machiavelli… Machiavelli was a revolutionary thinker in many ways because he took leadership outside of the domain of morality and more specifically, religious morality. He made it about goals. So, he’s not saying in The Prince you should do good on this world and make the world a better place. He’s just saying here are the best ways to arrive at power, exercise power and stay in power and accomplish the goals that you have.
Now people use the term Machiavellian and they see it as immoral, but really, it’s instrumental. He’s secularizing. He’s like the first efficiency coach, if you will. He’s more than that, but that’s one way of looking at him. So, I take a little bit from that. I think that leadership definitely has skills that you learn and you can improve your skills and succeed in your goals. But my book is really concerned, I confess, with this more Pollyannish maybe vision of making the world better. So, I am concerned with leaders who at least try to make the world better and hopefully succeeded sometimes in making the world better. I talk about the challenges that they faced.
But I also think that we have to look at cases that are difficult because people will have very different opinions about whether they were working for good or evil or whether they were successful or unsuccessful. One case is Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister. A very controversial figure and whether one likes her and her politics or not there can be no doubt that she’s a transformational, impactful leader, probably the most important political leader of her generation in the world and her legacy is enormous. This is irrespective of one’s positive or negative opinion of the individual leader and there’s a whole story there. So, I’m fascinated by cases like that. I also think that the book has several examples of people who face difficult choices of how to lead.
So, to give you one final example of this, let’s say that you are born in a country that is under a dictator. You know, that dictator has been around forever and you see no future without the dictator. You don’t want to cooperate with a dictator because a dictator might be murderous, violating human rights, a really awful person. But what if working under that dictatorship is the only way that you see to improve life for people in your society? If you do go in that path, you try to improve maybe education or health or infrastructure, you’re trying to be a leader in those domains, but you’re also complicit with something that is overall quite evil.
On the other hand, you can escape or you can exit and then you are kind of virtuous in that sense, but you don’t actually help maybe the people who stayed behind. This is not an academic or abstract exercise that I’m offering here. This is a problem that people face all over the world. There were even debates about it during the Trump administration. Should this person go work for the Trump administration? This is an illegitimate administration and Trump is a really bad person. But then the argument is if good people don’t work in the administration, then it’s even worse. We go back and forth on that. It’s not an easy debate, but it’s a debate that people have to have with themselves in many different places in the world.
I think Robert McNamara’s Another interesting case with a little bit of a different angle. I think he was on the whole a good person who demonstrated strong leadership in a lot of the roles that he did throughout his life. Yet when he was the architect or one of the leaders in terms of the Vietnam War, he was demonstrating at the minimum normatively bad leadership, particularly in terms of the outcomes and the way that that war was waged and the way that that war was communicated, and so many other things. Why is it that people that can be good people and demonstrate strong leadership characteristics can still be bad leaders when they’re put into certain situations?
McNamara has fascinated me for a long time. I have to give some credit here to Errol Morris, the director of The Fog of War and the late McNamara himself for making that film. The Fog of Warwhich came out about 20 years ago and I think is a fascinating document of not only an important man’s life, but really the story of America in that whole era that he was around power. So, here’s Robert McNamara, a modest boy from California, Irish American family. He’s not from an old boys’ network. He doesn’t come from wealth. His parents are not important people.
He really, in this American ethos way, built himself up meritocratically. He goes to Berkeley instead of Stanford, because at the time Berkeley cost a couple hundred dollars a year. He couldn’t afford to go to Stanford. But he’s brilliant. He’s a success story. As a young man, a creator of this unprecedented war machine that the United States built in World War II particularly to defeat Japan and people, of course, forget how difficult it was to defeat Japan and to defeat Nazi Germany wasn’t a walk in the park. He’s instrumental in that. So, there’s already the time together of this technological and data… He’s the father… You know, my students are fascinated by him because this man invented a whole field that they’re in, which is systems analysis, which is the foundation for business schools, for policy schools to this day.
Robert McNamara is incredibly important. Of course, he’s considered to be possibly the brightest and most talented public servant in the country. When John F. Kennedy hires him to become defense secretary, it’s seen as a brilliant coup because now you’re putting the military and all our power in the hands of a rational, scientifically minded, data driven individual, not an old boys’ network general or somebody from the military. So, we have here the potential for great success. We have a role model. In fact, if this works out, this is who we root for in a way.
Yet it’s precisely Robert McNamara who helps lead the country astray in this disastrous Vietnam war, and I don’t want to mince words. I know there’s all kinds of revisionism about this, but the Vietnam war was an unmitigated disaster for the United States, not to mention for the people of Southeast Asia. But how does this happen? Well, what happens is that Robert McNamara, first of all, gets carried away with the data, which by the way, it turned out to be misleading data. He ignores or downplays the importance of history and of politics and what the meaning of the war in Vietnam actually is and for that, it’s not enough to have data or to be good with numbers, although that’s also good.
It’s important to be sensitive and empathetic and not to view the world just through the lens of what you perceive to be the national interest of your country, which was part of the disaster. That’s number one. Number two is that Robert McNamara, who wanted to be a good public servant, interpreted public service and leadership as a public servant as loyalty to the person above him, the president. He really was telling LBJ what LBJ wanted to hear until quite late in the game, even though we know now that he was very skeptical from early on that this would actually work. He kept pouring more and more force and more and more technology in and finally it ended quite badly.
And through the process, he was lying. He was lying to the American people. He was telling them things that he knew weren’t true. He forgot the one thing that leaders should never forget. That the obligation of a leader/public servant, and by the way, leader and public servant for me are very closely related, is to serve the public, not power, not authority. It’s not a job. It’s not a career. It’s a vocation. It’s a way of looking at the world. I think that was McNamara’s downfall.
The title of your book calls out three different types of leaders: warriors, rebels, and saints. I could name some rebels that are also warriors. I mean, that’s very easy. If you’re leading an insurgent campaign, you’re both a rebel and you’re a warrior. It’s difficult for me to imagine warriors who are also saints. So, I wanted to get a sense from you if you can be both a warrior and a saint and maybe an example of one that was able to demonstrate both those aspects of leadership.
That’s a good question. Of course, just to clarify, I use those terms in one way that’s literal, actual rebels or even actual warriors, but it’s also allegorical. So, for me, a warrior is not just someone with arms who’s fighting in a war, but a warrior is someone who’s fighting for a cause. It’s really about the fight and the willingness to go into a fight. I see rebels also and saints in the same way. So, it’s separate categories, but they can overlap. I agree with you, the warrior, rebel categories maybe overlap more naturally. Warrior and saint is a trickier one. But if you really force my hand, I would talk about Mahatma Gandhi in India.
Let me start by saying that many people have written about Mahatma Gandhi and I didn’t just want to repeat the same compliments and this vision of the man, which is very well known, especially in the West. He’s almost the only Indian leader from that era that is really widely known in the West, not always for the correct reasons. But that being said, Mahatma Gandhi was a man who displayed unprecedented self-sacrifice. It was part of his, not just style of leadership, but even the essence, the belief system that he had as a leader. He talked about a complete selflessness and a willingness to become a martyr, a saint, if you will in the name of the cause and the cause was a nonviolent desire and commitment to national freedom and independence from British colonialism.
So, the duality here is that yes, Gandhi wore that wraparound dhoti. Yes, Gandhi was a vegetarian. What we forget is that Gandhi’s point in life and when he woke up in the morning and went to sleep at night, he wasn’t thinking about how to be nonviolent. He was thinking about how to gain freedom for his people. In that sense and in what he was willing to do for that, Gandhi was one of the greatest warriors that humanity has ever known. I think that Gandhi should not be just simply understood as a saint or a saintly figure, but also should be understood as a warrior, because that’s what drove him. That’s what made him the important transformational figure in history that we have today.
Of course, he’s also a rebel, because he’s fighting against the British empire for Indian independence.
Absolutely. He’s a triple threat. He’s in all three categories. There are others that I would put in that category too. I also wrote about both Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X. I hesitate to even put them together in the same rubric because they were so different in how they saw things and in many other ways, but they had that in common of the uncompromising fight against injustice and inequality and the rebellion against the structures, the victims of American politics and society and history itself.
Then finally, they’re martyred figures. Both of them murdered. Each of them at age 39. You know, when I was very young, I thought 39, that’s old. Now, I’m not that old, but now I’m old enough to know that 39 is so, so young, such a tragically young age to be killed. Of course, we have them frozen in time in their youthful glory as it were. But they’re still saints in the sense of what they were willing to sacrifice and knowing… Both of them knew. In fact, they said it, each of them, in their last speech, that their days are numbered. What could be more saintly than that?
Many Americans tie Martin Luther King and Malcolm X together in terms of thinking about different aspects of the civil rights struggle. Earlier though, we were talking about India and their pursuit of independence and were talking about Mahatma Gandhi. You mentioned that we don’t talk enough about other figures. I mean, I think there’s no better figure that exemplifies all three traits, but also contrasts and compares with Gandhi than B. R. Ambedkar. I think he’s another one of those people that demonstrates himself both as a warrior who’s fighting not just for independence, but also for what it means to be what they call the Dalits or what people in the West call the untouchables. He’s a rebel. He is somebody who got a doctorate despite all of the disadvantages that he had. At the same time, he’s a saint in terms of pushing for a moral way of looking at the world the same way that Malcolm X did.
Yes, I agree. So, maybe I should say a couple of words about B. R. Ambedkar because from experience I can say that B. R. Ambedkar is not a famous name in the West generally, and particularly maybe in the United States. Certainly, not as famous as Gandhi is, although in India, he’s very famous for good reason. So, B. R. Ambedkar, in fact, is what they call, was what they call an untouchable in the caste system. In the Hindu religion, you have castes and the untouchables are at the lowest, but they’re not even in the caste system. They’re under it. They’re considered not even part of a caste. They’re under the castes and they’re literally untouchable in traditional Indian Hindu society. Historically, these are the most downtrodden poor.
We’re talking about hundreds of millions of people, by the way. They live at the margins of society, without any rights and whether India is under colonial control of the British or even post-independence, that has a continuity to it. B. R. Ambedkar comes from this community. He grows up not allowed to enter the classroom, not allowed to drink water with the other children, made to walk with a broom at the back of his cloth to sweep the pollution that he leaves behind because this is the idea of what untouchables are. That’s how he grows up. He’s discovered by a teacher, luckily for him, who recognizes his brilliance and one thing leads to another and B. R. Ambedkar winds up studying first in Mumbai and then goes abroad.
He goes to New York City where he studies with John Dewey and others and he studies in the London School of Economics. He actually gets two PhDs. He’s the first Indian to receive a PhD in economics in the West, even though he’s a Dalit. He’s an extraordinary person. He comes back to India and he’s not really a politician, but he becomes the leader, the informal leader of the entire Dalit community as the Indian people are struggling for freedom from the British. Then the question for B. R. Ambedkar and the Dalits is do we just continue to accept our fate as the lowest of the low in the society and say, thanks for having independence from the British or do we want to really transform the society that we’re in?
B. R. Ambedkar does something, which is to this day is very controversial, which is that he rejects the idea that national independence is simply enough to have freedom and that you go from there. He says, ‘No, no, no. My people, the Dalits, are oppressed, not necessarily just by colonialism, by the British, but by the society itself, by something which has been going on for thousands of years. So, we need to annihilate this. We need to defeat this.’ And it’s a long struggle. He winds up making that compromise that we talked about earlier. He actually writes the Indian constitution or is the primary writer of it. It’s a very famous and progressive constitution that India has. But eventually he winds up converting to Buddhism. He renounces Hinduism and he dies a Buddhist.
So, whether or not he’s a success or a failure is hard to say because he did make an impact. But caste is something that still exists. He didn’t manage to change that, but here’s someone who really came from the lowest point that you can imagine on the face of this earth really to the pinnacle, not to the pinnacle of power necessarily, but to the pinnacle of a moral strength and a commitment to a cause and an admiration that he had from people both in his own milieu, but also those who were outside of it.
So, we’ve been talking about how these three different ideas, warriors, rebels, and saints can go together, but obviously they don’t have to. In the book you write, “Leaders can be warriors. But if they fail to be rebels against the history that produced them and the system in which they operate, they do not make history as much as they are swept up in history’s momentum.” That raises a question for me. It makes me wonder whether there’s a place for just ordinary leadership or if we should be pressing leaders always to aspire to remake society or to produce some kind of change.
Well, you know, we’ve been talking now for about 10, 15, maybe 20 minutes about very lofty forms of leadership and really some of the biggest challenges that people have faced in our history. That raises the standard for what we talk about when we talk about leadership. But there’s another way to talk about leadership. You know, Justin, I’m actually a fairly simple, modest man. I would love to just have leaders who transform society, but it’s hard to transform society. We just talked earlier that we have very powerful structures in place. We have the momentum of history that I refer to. Leaders sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t, but they have to interact with forces outside of them that are sometimes much more powerful than they are.
So, how about we aspire to simply leaders who are committed to the public good, leaders who do their best so that the people that they have impact over or that they have leadership over lead better lives? And by better lives, I think we all know what that means. It’s not very complicated. That they live longer. That they have healthier lives. That they have good education. That they have good opportunities. That there is a social fabric. That people aren’t at each other’s throats. That we recognize that we’re all in the same boat together in this world. If the world burns up, no one wins. Sometimes we have to compromise our national aspirations or our individual interests for the collective. I think that what I just said sounds fairly almost wishy washy. If I listened to it from the outside, banal, wishy washy.
But we live in a world that in many ways what I just said sounds like the most extremist outlandish thing you can say publicly and politically. That’s actually a sad reality that leaders today have to face. That they see those things that I just said, which I think are very banal, as somehow threatening to their own short term political interests and actually, very often, the leaders that we do have are operating contrary to that out of motivations that don’t serve the public good. So, if you think about a leader like Martin Luther King, Jr, sometimes I wonder. He was killed at age 39. When I look at leaders like that, I want them to live. I want them to live and I want them to live long lives and I want them to thrive.
My ideal world is that we have leaders like that. But that they don’t get killed for it and that they can actually continue to do good. So. that’s my kind of more taking off the hat of the historian and putting on the hat of the citizen, the person who is interested in leadership for leadership’s sake. The second thing is that going back to my very earliest comments, leadership, I think, can be found all around us. You know, there’s people that we may not know of, but they might be very near us. We say this person actually is a leader in his or her own way because of what they do and what they can contribute. How can I help this person? How can I contribute to this person’s leadership? I think that is a transformational way of living in this world and cultivating good leadership.
Then finally, a lot of people can recognize leadership in themselves. It doesn’t have to be grandiose. It doesn’t have to be that you win an election or that you have millions of people following you. It means that in your daily life, you are really committed to making things as good as possible for the society and not just talking about charity or not just talking about volunteering, which are important things. I’m talking about how you envision the world, how you interact with fellow humans whether they’re from your community or from outside your community. Even that in this day and age, I think, can be a form of leadership that we should aspire to.
So, a phrase that you just used that really sticks with me is when you say cultivating leadership. I mean, you’re an educator. You’re a professor at Harvard University. You are in a position of cultivating leaders and many of us are. If you’re a parent, you’re in a position of trying to cultivate leaders. If you’re a teacher of any kind, you’re in a position of cultivating leaders. If you’re a leader, part of your job should be to cultivate the next leader to take your place. What does that mean? How do we cultivate those leaders? What should we be concerned about, what should we doing when we’re doing that cultivating, when we’re trying to develop leaders?
It’s a tricky question, because I am more skeptical than some of my colleagues or peers who teach on leadership that there is a formula that you learn. That you step into a classroom and you’re like, here’s 10 ways to become a good leader. I don’t mean to sound like I’m caricaturing, but it really often boils down to that. It’s like techniques and things that you learn. Then you step out of the class and voila, now you’re a leader. The reason I’m skeptical is not because I’m just a skeptic. It’s because I’m a historian. So, I see leadership not as a formula. It’s not something that happens in a vacuum. It’s not just something that you can declare about yourself. It has to happen in a historical context, has to match up with the kind of situation that you or others find yourself in.
So, sometimes you become a leader, even though you had no expectation of becoming a leader. They were in one particular situation and then the context changes and suddenly they find themselves responding to a political moment that is corresponding to their abilities or their background. One example is taken from Nigeria. So, the musician Fela Kuti. When he started out, he was a musician. He was just interested in jazz and funk and created Afrobeat. But when the context in Nigeria became politically fraught, people turned to him because his message was so powerful and resonated so much, especially with young people, that he found himself in a position of political leadership. It’s a very unusual trajectory that he had.
So, there’s a little bit of that. That you can’t actually just teach someone to become a leader or cultivate them. But what you can do, I think, is to recognize the ability that we all have to distinguish between a real problem and a fake problem. I think a big issue in our society is that we’re awash with problems that are distractions from real issues that affect people. I think that that’s something that you learn. You learn by looking at history and what affected people in moments of crisis. So, to give another example, I think this is a really interesting case, the Great Depression in the United States.
So, when the Great Depression hit, Herbert Hoover was the president and Herbert Hoover before the Great Depression was considered just this brilliant man. He had never run for office or anything and he’s becoming president because people just consider him to be the brightest public servant in the country. His record was great and it turns out that Herbert Hoover was an excellent leader in the sense of management. In times of stability, in times of peace, in times of prosperity, Herbert Hoover is the guy that you want as your leader. But when crisis hits and the Great Depression was a severe crisis, even today, Justin, Americans, even educated Americans don’t fully comprehend how bad it was during the Great Depression. It turned out that Herbert Hoover was the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The kind of leader that we needed at that moment was FDR, who turned out to be a great leader for a crisis moment. So, I don’t know how FDR would have functioned in a moment of peace and stability and tranquility. Some leaders in history, you can see that they’re always looking for trouble. They’re always looking for chaos. They thrive in situations of drama, challenges, conflict. And when there is none, they create it. There are many examples of this. I’m not saying FDR was such a leader, but FDR was the sort of leader that the American people really turned to and admired in this moment of crisis. So, that’s why the interaction between the historical situation and the type of leader that comes in is so important.
Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s called Warriors, Rebels, Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X. Whether you’re just a fan of history or if you’re somebody who’s looking for bigger picture ideas about politics that would include leadership, this is definitely a fascinating read for you. So, thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you so much for writing the book.
Thanks, Justin, for having me in for this fantastic conversation. You know, I look forward to hearing from people. Don’t hesitate to reach out. I’m a modest person. Reach out if you have any comments about the book, any thoughts. I love to hear from readers and thanks so much for listening.
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