catch 22

Catch 22 – Power politics: Isn’t it time to get the leaders we deserve?

Andrew Leci hopes to stir up a hornet’s nest on the subject of 21st century megalomania

Back in primary school in England, every kid wanted to be the ‘milk monitor’. In the days when free milk was handed out at schools across the UK, it was a position of responsibility and power. I can remember a flurry of hands going up when the role was about to be assigned, and I also remember that very few of the children who volunteered got the job.

Our teacher almost invariably handed it to those who didn’t put themselves forward, and as a relatively bright child I soon worked out that looking uninterested and not screaming out “me… oh me… me please,” was a successful tactic. It also enabled me to make my childhood nemesis suffer, by giving the wretch his milk last… or not at all. Back then, revenge was a dish best served cold… milk style. I’m not entirely sure what happened to him, but I gather he is now a Member of Parliament.

Being annoyingly curious by nature, I did ask the teacher (at some point) why the wannabe monitors were rarely appointed. I can’t remember her explanation word for word, it was quite a long time ago. The nub though, was that it was always the same kids who wanted the position and it was fairer to let everyone have a go; and the gist, which now makes sense, that those who wanted the power and responsibility were probably not those who should be wielding it.

catch 22

I suppose I haven’t thought about it that much since, until I read an article in the UK’s Guardian by columnist (and political and environmental activist) George Monbiot. Written ahead of the leadership battle to succeed Theresa May as head of the UK’s Conservative party and become the country’s next Prime Minister, he starts by questioning why anyone would even want the job – a thankless task that will almost certainly end in failure and ignominy, as it will shortly do for May. He asserts that ‘our toxic political system rewards all the wrong traits and produces the worst possible leaders’, and suggests that anyone wanting such a role should undergo therapy – after suitable psychological evaluation, presumably. Surely, he seems to suggest, there must be something wrong with them.

The nub: that people in power shouldn’t be in power, simply by virtue of the fact that they want to be in power, while those not seeking it should, and would probably make a much better fist of it. The genuine desire to be the next British Prime Minister today, Monbiot says, ‘suggests either reckless confidence or an insatiable hunger for power.’

While Monbiot was writing about the current situation in the UK, it’s not difficult to see how this theme is prevalent in many political (and business) leaders around the world. No, I won’t be mentioning any names. We all know who they are. Everywhere you look there are people wielding authority for all the wrong reasons – the irony being, as I said, that those who are most fit to govern are the least likely to want to. Those who are desirous of being at the sharp end of a decision-making process that can affect millions (if not billions) of lives, tend to be the least fit and proper – from a psychological perspective – to ensure that the precepts of good governance are put in place.

Why? Because the quest for power and authority displays a psychopathy that is invariably detrimental in someone given the responsibility for controlling lives. A degree of narcissism? Any number of possible psychoses? Never having been given the job as milk monitor at school in those formative years? It can all add up.

We use words such as ‘strong’ and ‘decisive’ when describing those who display good leadership, but those words can also imply intransigence and lack of empathy. Once an individual has been elevated to a position of power, psychopathy can kick in to an even greater extent, often with disastrous consequences. The power hungry are fed their required diet while the rest of us suffer the effects of often incomprehensible policies that do everything but ameliorate our lives, which is, after all, the main responsibility of a democratically elected leader.

Such leaders, however, may be coming from a ‘dark place’, and working out their issues on the global stage is unhealthy, for all concerned. But a level of psychopathy is what seems to be an essential element in the psychological make-up of someone who wants to be head honcho, dispensing his or her perceived wisdom and making calls from on high. Those who don’t apply for leadership roles are often the people who should be in them, in what Monbiot describes as a ‘reverse Catch-22 situation’.

Let’s hope that at some point in the future the world can wake up to a new breed of leader. The kind that may not be predisposed to putting themselves forward when it comes to seeking power, but that understands what’s really important when it comes to handing out the milk.