I conceded to both that the debate about what mattered more — the individual or circumstances — was a complicated business. But I reminded the professor that she hailed from a land in which one man, Mustafa Kemal — otherwise known as Ataturk — had fundamentally changed the entire direction of her country’s modern history. We left it at that.
History, to be sure, is driven by the interaction between human agency and circumstance. Based on my own experiences in government and negotiations, individuals count greatly in this mix, particularly in matters of war, peace, and nation building. Historian John Keegan made the stunning assertion that the story of much of the twentieth century was a tale, the biographies really, of six men: Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and Mao. Wherever you stand on the issue of the individual’s role in history, its impact must be factored into the equation, particularly when it comes to explaining turning points in a nation’s history.
Nonetheless, the professor from Turkey had a point. Today we are consumed with leaders and leadership as the solution, if not the panacea, to just about everything that ails us. We admire the bold transformational leader who seeks fundamental change, and value less the cautious transactor who negotiates, triangulates, and settles for less dramatic results. And we tend to forget too that great leaders almost always emerge in times of national crisis, trauma, and exigency, a risk we run if we hunger for the return of such leaders. Still, in Holy Grail-like pursuit, we search for some magic formula or key to try to understand what accounts for great leadership. Indeed, we seem nothing short of obsessed with the L-word.