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The Modern Prince
What Leaders Need To Know
By Carnes Lord
Yale University Press
HC, 304 pg. US$26
ISBN: 0-3001-0007-8

The art of leadership

By Steven Martinovich
web posted December 22, 2003

The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need To Know"The theory of democracy tells us that the people rule. In practice, we have leaders who rule the people in a manner not altogether different from the princes and potentates of times past." This opening statement by Carnes Lord in The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need To Know will likely rankle many but there is no denying the reality that at the end of the day we still rely on leaders to guide us. Their power may no longer be absolute -- at least for those of us in constitutional democracies -- but in many respects their job description hasn't changed. What has changed is the advent of democracies and mass media, developments that have made leading others more difficult.

With that in mind, Lord explores what political leadership means today by drawing on sources both ancient and modern -- most notably Niccolo Machiavelli's 1513 treatise The Prince. The question he constantly grapples with, and the one of most interest to politicians, is how can a modern politician lead effectively? In our cynical age we're likely to respond that a politician's most effective tool is charisma -- not unfair perhaps given how some, such as former U.S. president Bill Clinton, have effectively employed it. Continue to win elections and keep society's factions at bay and you'll likely be considered a success.

For Lord, however, the answer is more complex. His argument is that a successful politician is the one who understands that the real "grammar of leadership" is statecraft. His definition of that word is not limited to its modern use -- diplomacy in the service of foreign policy -- but rather "statecraft is an art of coping with an adversarial environment in which actions generate reactions in unpredictable ways and chance and uncertainty rule." Simply put, statecraft is the effective use of instruments available to a politician to attain goals.

An effective politician, however, needs to understand what those tools are, how they work, and how they relate to each other. Almost anything can be an impediment to a leader, whether it’s the political environment they operate in, a bureaucracy that hasn't bought into the agenda or influential elites that can help or hinder. A politician practicing statecraft must understand, argues Lord, that issues are most often connected to each other -- usually in complex ways -- and that without understanding what binds them together, a leader is unlikely to succeed.

That, of course, is easier said then done. Gridlock and partisan battles seem to dominate politics today and it takes an exceptional person to be able to implement even a modest agenda. Some of that is due to politicians who emphasize charisma over action, more eager to protect their poll numbers than actually lead, and who have reduced expectations as to what is expected from both liberal democracy and the citizenry which fails to carry its own weight. Even politicians who take too active a role in developing policy come under fire by Lord, who prefers a chief executive to focus on strategic matters.

The ideal leaders, as Lord indicates, are men like Dwight D. Eisenhower. The former general, who has been derided by many historians as an out of touch politician more interested in playing golf than actively pursuing policy goals, earns praise from Lord. Eisenhower, he writes, was one of few politicians who actually had a cogent philosophy of leadership. By utilizing what Lord calls a "hidden-hand" approach, Eisenhower was able to position the United States to fight a protracted Cold War, maintain his popularity and allow him room for maneuver with Congress. Although he had no transformational agenda like Franklin D. Roosevelt, Eisenhower practiced the type of leadership America needed for the 1950s and he largely achieved the policy goals that he allowed others to take credit for.

As Aristotle and Machiavelli before him, Lord's central argument is that a leader must understand the tools available to him and how to employ them effectively. We can afford in peacetime to have leaders who are, to be charitable, less than ideal but in times of war effective leadership is essential. Whether or not The Modern Prince attains its namesake's popularity, it is a remarkable guide to leadership and should be mandatory reading for everyone who attains high office. It manages to both inform and raise our expectations for those who would become our democratically elected princes and potentates.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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