Last week provided a study in contrasts between the use and exercise of power, at home and abroad.
In President Jacob Zuma’s rural redoubt of Nkandla, it was easy to be blind-sided by reports of black economic empowerment bling, relating to the helicopters and flashy cars that transported the ascendant elite to the head of state’s home village thanksgiving.
But Zuma’s speech was not aimed at the ostentatious. It suggested a sense of someone, who, whatever his past and future failings, remains absolutely rooted and secure in his identity and mindful of the communal ladders which lifted him to prominence.
Zuma assured his audience: “I will never forget my origins ... even as president, I will not change. I will still listen to you and do whatever you tell me to do ... Even if I live in a big house. You will tell me if I do wrong.”
Nkandla, in other words, will provide Zuma with the moral compass for his presidency.
My wife, Michal, who practises as an executive coach, drew my attention to a vast range of literature which differentiates between “external” or “hard” power and emotional intelligence, conveyed by “internal” or “soft” power. Most political leaders follow the first route, believing that the externalities of power, detached from emotion, are the ticket to leadership.
Yet, the more effective form of leadership often originates from your internal power: your own sense of identity based on the strength derived from your personal relationships and your ability to recognise, and manage, your emotions — and to empathise with others.
That’s a pretty tall order. But someone else whose soft power was on conspicuous display last week, in the cauldron of the Middle East, was US President Barack Obama. His masterful speech at Cairo University resulted in a standing ovation — no mean feat given that his immediate predecessor, George W Bush, on his last visit to the Middle East, had a pair of shoes thrown at him.
In place of the Bush rhetoric, made vivid with the formula “you’re either for us or with the terrorists”, Obama managed to draw on his own multicultural background, and his middle name “Hussein”, to navigate through the multiple minefields of Middle East politics.
The usually staid Financial Times exalted Obama for reaffirming his country’s “unbreakable” bond with Israel and for recognising the “intolerable” plight of the Palestinians. Obama “dodged the ambushes, without evading the issues”.
But it was another paragraph in the superpower leader’s speech, which caught my attention. He reached back to the words of President Thomas Jefferson: “I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us that the less we use our power, the greater it will be.”
Of course, as one critic noted, the eloquence of action is more powerful than the eloquence of rhetoric. But the speech did provide a refreshing start to what is hopefully a new chapter in US-Middle East relations.
However, across the oceans, in London, Gordon Brown’s premiership appeared to be in a political death spiral.
Last weekend, as Zuma celebrated and Obama basked in his warm Egyptian reception, Brown faced up to the loss of six senior cabinet colleagues, and the slump of the governing Labour Party to third place in the European elections.
Compounding Brown’s misfortunes was the leaking, last weekend, of e-mails penned 18 months ago by the past master of the dark arts of political intrigue, Lord Peter Mandelson. In the hasty reshuffle of the cabinet, he effectively became Brown’s deputy prime minister.
Yet, when marooned behind the front line of British politics, Mandelson had cast doubts on his leader’s mental hygiene, describing him as “insecure”, “complex”, “self-conscious” and “angry”.
In Mandelson’s view, Brown “tries too hard to be a normal person”. But perhaps Brown is onto something.
Former British politician, and one-time neurological registrar, David Owen, has diagnosed a condition to which too many political leaders are prone.
In a recent book The Hubris of Power, he suggests — drawing on his observations of Bush and Blair, and framing them around the invasion of Iraq — that something happens to the mental stability of some leaders while in power.
He suggests that hubristic behaviour is an occupational hazard of high office. Exacerbated by isolation and deference, it can lead to patterns of reckless behaviour, bad judgment calls and a tendency to see the world as an arena in which the leader can exercise power, based on “a delusional sense of personal infallibility and divine exemption from political accountability.”
Let’s hope, for our sake (and the world’s), that Zuma and Obama remain grounded.
They could do worse than to follow, with the necessary updates, the Roman example.
Wise emperors apparently placed a slave behind them on their chariots. His purpose was to whisper: “Remember, you are only human.”
*Published in Sunday Times 14 June 2009