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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Leadership vs. lifestyle

The Ukrainian people were recently stunned when they took over the Presidential palace in Kiev and found out the extent of President Yanukovch's spending. There were exotic animals, a personal golf course, a restaurant shaped like a pirate galleon, and a host of other luxuries. Visitors to the estate also found files that had been thrown into the lake; some of these seemed to indicate that Yanukovych had been involved with money laundering and bribery as well.

This brings to mind a near inviolable rule: that a leader's moral stature is inversely correlated to the lavishness of his lifestyle. The great leaders have always been about the cause, not the opulence.

Think of Mahatma Gandhi. He wanted freedom from British rule, and also advocated nonviolence, two causes it's hard to argue against. But his moral authority somehow seemed enhanced by his vegetarianism, fasting, and even his efforts at celibacy. (He may have been a wimp, but he was a noble wimp.)

Or compare the Ayatollah Khomeini and Saddam Hussein. Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the Iranian revolution of 1979, was an ascetic who would drink nothing stronger than tea. He was an extremely religious man who took all the teachings of the Koran seriously, and he was evidently uninterested in personal wealth. Unlike Gandhi, he was no wimp, in fact looked a bit like Sean Connery-as-the-Raisuli (in The Wind and the Lion):

Khomeini may have put into place a theocracy which set Iran back in the Dark Ages, but his austere lifestyle earned him the loyalty and admiration of his people, and there was no doubting his moral stature. Saddam Hussein's reign was all about power, using his office to accumulate personal wealth, and self-indulgence. He ruled by force; Iraqis feared him, but did not admire him.

Or contrast Nelson Mandela to other African leaders. Whatever you think of the ANC and its communist ideology, whatever you make of the consequences of black rule in southern Africa, there's no denying Mendela's moral stature. He could have been released from prison earlier had he only renounced his anti-apartheid stance, but he refused to do so. More to the point of this post, once Mandela was released, he led a relatively austere lifestyle. He abjured alcohol, and did not use his office to accumulate riches. As President, he even made his own bed every morning. (His second wife Winnie was interested in all the trappings, but he wasn't.) Mandela's only personal indulgence was fine clothes.

Contrast Mandela to John-Bedel Bokassa, the leader of the Central African Republic, who spent one third of the national treasury on his coronation ceremony, and whose entire reign was about self-glorification. Or to Mobutu Sese Seseko, the Zairian kleptocrat whose net worth, gained from siphoning off foreign aid, was upwards of five billion by the time he left office.

If a country's leader wants to live like a drug kingpin, he's not a good leader. Period. (Yanukovych's menagerie of exotic animals was a particularly Pablo Escobar-like touch.)

There's actually a faint parallel to this rule with recent US Presidents. Some recent Presidents have been content to go back home while on vacation and occupy themselves clearing brush from their ranch. Others want to stay at fancy estates in chi-chi areas where the Secret Service must go to extra effort to protect them. Some are happy to attend state dinners and get together with a few close friends. Others are thrilled to party with Hollywood celebrities and superstar athletes and bigwigs from the music world.

It's all quite illuminating, and illustrative of how the leadership vs. lifestyle rule is near-inviolable.


Anonymous said...

Superb post! Brian

John Craig said...

Thank you Brian.