What Do We Mean By a ‘Strong Leader’?

By Thomas J. Lee

What exactly is a “strong leader”?

People are all but unanimous. Everyone wants strong leadership. They may disagree on everything else, but they want strong leaders. They say so repeatedly.

But what precisely does that mean? What do we think of when we think of strong leaders?

Like a lot of words and phrases, it can mean different things to different people.

On the one hand, it can mean decisive, determined, persevering, and ambitious. In this sense it recalls leaders like Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt. Had they not lived, and had they not led, the world today would be unrecognizable to us, and we wouldn’t like it.

On the other hand, strong leadership can mean something quite different, very nearly the opposite: tyrannical, brutal, domineering, or even violently willful. In this sense it invokes an altogether different list of leaders: Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Together their madness led to the deaths of perhaps one hundred million people.

Without an agreed-upon definition, you may intend to convey the first set of meanings—benign, as they are—but be understood to convey the second set of meanings, which are anything but benign. That’s the kind of trouble you invite by using short, vague descriptives such as this. They mean different things to different people.

I have been thinking about this phrase over the last couple of weeks, after two persons used the phrase “strong leader” in ways that caught me off guard. It had never occurred to me that the individuals whom they described as strong leaders were even remotely so.

The first was a remark by a controversial firebrand of a priest, the Rev. Michael Pfleger of Chicago. After the Cook County prosecuting attorney dropped all charges in an incendiary case involving television star Jusssie Smollett, many people complained. Pfleger, seeing racism where I hadn’t, rushed to the defense of the prosecuting attorney, a well-connected and otherwise competent black woman. Pfleger said the complaints were thinly veiled attempts to sully the reputation of “a strong leader.” I could only shake my head. The prosecutor had struck me as woefully weak.

The other case involves a friend who proudly parades his support for Donald Trump. While reasonable people can differ on their political judgment of Trump’s presidency, it seems to me the question of whether he is a strong leader is answered every day by his undisciplined tweet storms, his inability to pass substantive legislation, his appointment of so many morally obtuse and ethically challenged individuals, his lax schedule, his refusal to read or think critically, and his repeated and habitual evasions and lies. My friend naturally disagrees. He hails Trump’s “strong leadership.” Again, I can only shake my head.

Winston Churchill is widely regarded as a strong leader.

Winston Churchill is widely regarded as a strong leader.

The two officials have little in common. In one instance, you have an African-American, liberal, Democratic woman. In the other, you have a white, conservative, Republican man. Obviously, you can find people in each of their corners who think that one or the other is a strong leader. Then there are people like me, who think neither is.

I cannot change the way millions of people use a word, and I won’t even try. But I can suggest that whenever you use the locution “strong leader” or “strong leadership,” you immediately explain what you mean and why. Even more important, when someone else uses these phrases, inquire as to what exactly is meant.

For example, it may be a reference to the leader’s moral strength, which we can define simply as having the strength to do the right thing. Those of us who care whether leaders do right—and, to begin, who agree on what is right—will naturally want leaders whom we regard as morally strong. They have a built-in compass, which points them in the direction of good. They also have an internal gyroscope, which stops them before they do something stupid or self-destructive. So they make fewer mistakes, and they tend to do right by the people they lead.

Or it may be a reference to another kind of strength—an analytical, intellectual, or cognitive source of authority and power. By this we mean the strength to see the world as it truly is and the capacity to figure out what should be done about it. It is careful, methodical, purposeful. When it’s in gear, this strength generates reasonable self-confidence and steady progress. The opposite, which we don’t want, shows up as self-delusion or impetuosity.

Yet another kind of strength is a matter of courage and perseverance—the strength to soldier on in the face of adversity. To quote the lyrics of the popular old Mariah Carey song, Hero:

And then a hero comes along 
With the strength to carry on 
And you cast your fears aside 
And you know you can survive.

All three of these kinds of strength are to the good. Other things being equal, leaders who are endowed with these strengths will generally serve us well.

But what about the dark side? Are there other kinds of strong leadership that are unwelcome, that most people would label bad leadership, arguably even evil leadership?

The answer is plainly yes. Dictators, tyrants, con artists, and assorted “strongmen” who prop up their own “leadership” with armies and security forces, or even two-bit politicians who lie, cheat, and bamboozle their way to power, typically display a kind of strength that most of us find repellant.

The fundamental difference between strong leadership that is welcome, on the one hand, and strong leadership that is unwelcome, on the other, is whether, and to what extent, the leader’s strength builds up our own. That is the acid test. We need strong leaders whose leadership strengthens us and puts us in a stronger position—leaders who share their strength with the rest of us. We don’t need and shouldn’t want leaders who sap our own strength and rob us of our energy and will. For all intents and purposes, theirs is not strong leadership at all. It is ultimately weak.

If the strong leadership you want is a leader who is decisive, determined, persevering, and ambitious, I’m with you one hundred percent. But if what you actually want is a leader who is tyrannical, brutal, domineering, and even violently willful, count me out. The world already has too many little Putins.