Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Leadership and Political Change: 25 Years of Transformation in Post-Communist Europe

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Leadership and Political Change: 25 Years of Transformation in Post-Communist Europe

Article excerpt


"The scientific study of political leadership - wrote Glenn Page - presents a challenge to the entire discipline of political science...The challenge is to recognize the importance of political leadership, to focus scientific attention upon it, and to begin the cumulative process of conceptualization, that eventually will lead to the creation of a subdisciplinary and potentially transdisciplinary scientific field of global significance" (Page 1971, 1). Even forty-five years after its publication, his monumental book remains the most comprehensive analysis of the role leaders in politics. Page's call for greater attention to be paid to the role of leaders has been only partially responded by the mainstream of political science. The relative neglect of this aspect of political life is due to the dominant influence of two traditions. The first, under the impact of legal sciences, puts the emphasis on institutions. The second, drawing from sociology and social psychology, focuses on mass political behavior. Political scientists who undertake the study of leadership do not reject these two traditions, but believe that they cannot provide a satisfactory explanation of politics without serious attention being paid to the role of the individuals who, because of their prominent place in political systems, play a particularly great role in making key political decisions.

In 1988, in the introduction to the special issue of the International Political Science Review devoted to political leadership, I have distinguished between the studies of leadership and the more prolific elite studies (Wiatr 1988, 91). The study of leadership focuses on selected individuals whose role in politics is considered of special importance. The elite studies concentrate on the analysis of collective characteristics of the groups of people who because of their place within a political system carry more political weigh than the mass of ordinary citizens. In the present paper I concentrate on the role of leaders, while mentioning the elite studies only to explain some differences in the political context of their actions.


In the history of political thought of the 19th century, the question how important in history were the "great men", have been answered in two, radically opposed, ways. For the Hegelian tradition (followed among others by Tolstoy in his monumental War and Peace and by a great majority of traditional Marxists) leaders were nothing more but "etiquettes" of historical events, while for the British writer Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) they were the "heroes" whose role he elevated to that of the true makers of history (Carlyle 1907).

Such philosophical extremes can be avoided if one accepts the distinction made, more than seventy years ago, by the American philosopher Sidney Hook (1902- 1989) who distinguished between the historical role of the eventful and eventmaking personalities. "The eventful man in history - wrote Hook - is any man whose actions influenced subsequent developments along the quite different course than would have been followed if these actions had not been taken. The event-making man is an eventful man whose actions are the consequences of outstanding capacities of intelligence, will, and character rather than of accidents of position. This distinction tries to do justice to the general belief that a hero is great not merely in virtue of what he does but in virtu e of what he is." (Hook 1969, 154).

Hook's distinction points to the fact that the role of individuals in shaping history depends not only on their individual characteristics, important as they are, but also on the degree to which there have been alternative courses of action created by the earlier developments. Leadership is about making decisions but only in some historical circumstances those who make decisions face truly important alternatives. Wars, revolutions, great crises offer opportunities for history-making decisions much greater than those which leaders face in more peaceful times. …

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