Inevitably and rightly so, a New Year summons reflection. What happened, why it happened, and what can be done about it will be a prevalent theme. The focus is typically on specific events, as specific events allow for clear diagnoses, prognoses, and prescriptions. This inductive approach is useful as captures proximal causes—those that are closely related to specific events—and is, therefore, offers tangible things to grasp.

However, 2017 was governed as much by zeitgeist—German for the spirit of the times—than anything else. A deductive approach is best suited to capture this tumultuous year, as its focus in on distal causes—those that are more elusive and thus difficult to grasp. The events of 2017 can only be comprehended through the principle that won the day. What that principle is, and how it governed this tumultuous year, is the subject of this essay.

Humanity’s history is a struggle for freedom to choose who our leaders are, what the law shall govern, how we can worship, where we can travel, how we conduct ourselves, and who we associate ourselves with. But despite our relentless pursuit of self-determination–the long march from the Magna Carta to the Constitution and Bill of Rights through the Arab Spring and beyond—the appeal of the outsized, even super-sized, personality is irresistible.

Enter the Larger than Life Leader.

Why, at this moment in time, are modern, sophisticated, educated nations yearning for returning to an archetype that was seemingly extinct; a remnant of bygone days?
Science provides some insight. Studies show that charismatic leaders are tailor-made to deal with a crisis. Charismatic leaders have a natural appeal, are quick to action, and supremely convinced they’re infallible. They ooze confidence and encourage vigor, even while calming troubled minds. People to instinctively know this—more accurately, feel it—and during trying times, are drawn to larger than life characters like a moth to a flame.

Our moment in time can surely be described as a white-watershed. ISIS threatens fundamental world views and basic safety needs. Social causes have accelerated at dizzying speed, upsetting the comfort of a steady progress and long-observed mores. Multinationalism is hard to grasp in the first place, but assuredly surrenders control of national destiny to I’ll-defined powers. Globalism constitutes adopting a “world-view” that supersedes traditional, local, and proven ways of seeing the realm. What this all means for the economy—jobs, mostly—is anyone’s guess. All of this threatens ways of life and deeply rooted cultural values.

These are uncertain times. People are scared. And to assuage our fears, neurological research shows that emotion trumps reason. The heart always rules the head.

Thus the Larger than Life Leader.

Today’s realities may require more than mere intelligence, empirical analysis, and a level-head. We need more than the effective bureaucratic technocrat. The steady-state establishment type just won’t do. This moment calls for a person of stentorious temperament, who scorns standard operating procedure, who sees those not aligned as cowardly, and calls them so. One who brazenly pronounces that which was forbidden to say, to the squealing satisfaction of frustrated followers. One who is cut from the cloth of a previous age; a true demagogue in the original sense of the word. A leader of singular purpose who is uncompromising, unbending, and unforgiving. One who is a believer in his and his follower’s superiority, branding opposition as ignorant, even pernicious. A leader whose skills are not as sharply honed as they are roughly wrought. Intuition must be more important than diplomacy, ideas more important that institutions, and ends more important than means.

Throughout all time, when humans were frightened, frustrated, or flummoxed, they were especially vulnerable. History has shown that often such moments were occupied by egregiously wicked leaders. But history also shows that such times can summon our very best and most gracious leaders.

It would be easy to explain the choice of today’s leaders as part of an evolutionary process that serves our indefatigable pursuit of self-determination. But today is not an evolutionary moment. It’s a revolutionary one. We’re at a moment where the leaders have to be as big, if not bigger, than the times. Whether or not our choices prove the right ones remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain:

Welcome back to the Larger than Life Leader.

For the The Hill newspaper version, click here.

James Bailey

James Bailey

Dr. James R. Bailey is Professor and Hochberg Fellow of Leadership Development at the George Washington University, as well as Fellow at the Centre of Management Development at London Business School. A key-note speaker, best-selling author, and award winning educator, Dr. Bailey designs and delivers executive programs for some of the world's most prestigious firms.
James Bailey