Warriors, Rebels & Saints
Warriors, Rebels & Saints
Image: Supplied

Per its title, Warriors, Rebels and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X groups a variety of leaders into these three categories, though acknowledging crossover and nuance.

The author, Moshik Temkin, is a history professor specialising in international affairs and leadership. His academic attachments include the Harvard Kennedy School’s Middle East Initiative and the Schwarzman Leadership and History College at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, whose mission is to forge young leaders as a bridge between China and the rest of the world. A cynic might argue that Temkin’s work isn’t going well on either front; perhaps that’s his underlying reason for writing the book.

Leaders come in many forms; they are forged by past events and, in turn, shape history. This seems obvious, but — unlike economists as routine advisers to presidents and prime ministers — historians aren’t deemed worthy of a place in the corridors of power. This is problematic, because history holds rich lessons.

Tightly constructed around eight chapters, Temkin starts by assessing the principles of leadership with reference to its foundations in ancient times.

A king, regardless of how brutally he came to power, led by divine right. The biblical story of King David shows that gradually people built in checks, balances and a sense of natural justice to encode some limits to the behaviour of a king as leader. This is seen, too, in attitudes to Roman emperors. They were regarded as the link to the gods, and later as gods themselves, but they were expected to demonstrate accountability to citizens for the sound functioning of the empire, down to minor local issues.

It took 2,000 years for the concept of leadership to start transforming. In his treatise The Prince, Renaissance political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli asserted that leaders needn’t believe in preordained divine will, but instead could forge their own destiny. “There is such a gap between how one lives and how one should live that he who neglects what is being done for what should be done will learn his destruction rather than his preservation,” is one of the maxims in The Prince. In other words, leaders could take charge pragmatically, prioritising their own strategies, without fear of incurring God’s wrath.

The narrative becomes more dynamic, and connects to the idea of leadership as an art, when Temkin shifts focus to modern contexts. Each subsequent chapter has a specific theme, starting with leadership in times of crisis, as illustrated in a 30-page case study of Franklin D Roosevelt’s presidency.

Roosevelt was elected in 1932 as the Great Depression was deepening. It devastated livelihoods, lives, the entire US economy, and sent shockwaves globally. But president Herbert Hoover’s government, which preceded Roosevelt’s, had done nothing. And as the clouds of conflict gathered in Europe, isolationism took hold.

Having to win the election and then navigate his change initiatives through a moribund and hostile political system, Roosevelt was, in Temkins’s estimation,  a warrior-style leader. The author also believes it shows the requirement, in crisis circumstances, to rebel — in Roosevelt’s case, against his privileged upbringing and elitist social class — to make the radical but required changes to the status quo.

This is unconvincing. While Roosevelt’s achievements, such as the New Deal and the Lend-Lease initiative to provide military aid to Britain during the first phase of World War 2 (despite the US’s official neutrality), were accomplished by going against the grain, he still held most, if not all, the reins of political power. A rebel, on the other hand, is inevitably in a far more disadvantaged position.

Image: Supplied

Women leading the way

Warrior-like and rebellious qualities harnessed for effective leadership are better illustrated in the chapter on the suffrage movement. Here, Temkin combines historical context, the canvas of women leaders who were often mutually antagonistic, and social and political theory in a fascinating and inspiring snapshot of what was surely the mother of all culture wars.

A little-known, devastating incident shows the randomness of turning points, as well as how savvy leaders capitalise on them. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York involved immigrant women workers who toiled in appalling and dangerous conditions in the lucrative garment industry. A fire broke out in the building, but the women had been locked in — a routine practice by management to prevent bathroom breaks, which would supposedly trim productivity and profits. Almost all the (male) owners and managers escaped through the elevator, after which it stopped working; 123 women died, some of them girls aged just 14.

The incident mobilised labour activists and brought them into the suffrage movement. It also marked a schism between suffragist leaders content to use peaceful, constitutional means and those called suffragettes, such as Alice Paul, who adopted more militant tactics. Paul led protest marches, pickets and mass demonstrations, was repeatedly arrested, and was force-fed during various hunger strikes.

Part of the art of leadership is to holistically understand the struggle and to have a vision of what success looks like. Paul’s was the long game, because she interpreted the struggle as a bigger one, to transform American society. Even after the 19th amendment to the US constitution was ratified, giving women the vote in 1920, she continued to fight for broader equal rights for women. (The US still hasn’t passed an equal rights amendment she first proposed in 1923. There is no constitutional amendment prohibiting discrimination against women, Temkin notes.)

Warriors, Rebels and Saints is a compelling study of leadership but, paradoxically, it doesn’t answer many of the questions it poses

The book is peppered with intriguing historical episodes, such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, to show how powerful, vested interests only change when forced. That art of leadership may include the ability to read the signs.

Interestingly, because history is written by the winners and is subsequently crafted to suit the narrative of those with establishment power, president Woodrow Wilson is credited with an enlightened vision that enabled the success of the suffrage movement. This isn’t correct. He was lukewarm to the suffragists, and antagonistic to the suffragettes after they picketed outside the White House. But he saw the writing on the wall and rode the coattails of the activists, allowing him to claim credit for the 19th amendment. Paul’s role is infrequently mentioned.

Rebel saints

The book highlights Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X as examples of near-exemplary leaders. They were certainly flawed, and angry. But they channelled their anger for the broader public good. And they were absolutely willing to sacrifice their freedom, their very lives, for this (all three were assassinated). They epitomise the leadership saints of the book’s title.

The chapter “Leadership When the Lights Fail?” isn’t a dedicated section on South Africa, but one analysing the period leading to the US’s escalated military involvement in Vietnam from 1964 — essentially, its declaration of all-out war. As president Lyndon B Johnson and his defence secretary Robert McNamara descended into a morass of bad decisions, only two senators and congressmen dissented. The lights went out in the sense that the war exacted a terrible price (58,000 Americans died fighting; the toll on the Vietnamese was many times that) and the political fallout through to Richard Nixon’s Watergate disgrace, says Temkin, “entrenched the dangerous norm that there is no real accountability in the United States for criminality at the very top, a message received loud and clear by subsequent presidents and Americans alike”.    

This section is a depressing picture of the ramifications of a lack of leadership, or the moral failure of leadership. In South Africa, referencing our past and present, we know the effects all too well. 

Warriors, Rebels and Saints is a compelling study of leadership but, paradoxically, it doesn’t answer many of the questions it poses and provides limited concrete, practical advice to ordinary people. Which is perhaps the best thing to say about the book, because leadership is complex, and trying to find pithy answers is disingenuous.

Still, Temkin’s work does add to the respect for well-known, establishment leaders with the backbone to battle reactionary, post-truth, populist opponents, and admiration for lesser-known leaders in the trenches. The people who take up arms for indisputably just causes, the campaigners mobilising for social change, the climate activists who are thinking about future generations — these are the real warriors, rebels and modern-day saints.

Warriors, Rebels and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X, by Moshik Temkin (Profile Books, 2023)

This book review was originally pblished in the Financial Mail.

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.