Courage and Leadership

This will be brief as I get back into the blogging groove from a too-long holiday hiatus.

A man died last month. While a few news publications made note of his death, it likely went unnoticed and largely unmourned by your average American. The man was Yegor Gaidar, the first finance minister of the new Russia and later its prime minister for a brief period. Mr. Gaidar was most famous for his decision to rapidly move Russia, then in transition from the Soviet command economy, towards a liberalized and privatized modern economy. Its immediate effects were devastating. Those of us old enough to remember the Russian transition period (it is in fact one of my first political memories) may chiefly remember the numerous bread lines in Russian stores due to shortages and hyperinflation. These hardships were the direct result of Mr. Gaidar’s policies.

I heard Mr. Gaidar speak twice while at Duke University and have a signed copy (now read) of his account of the Russian transition period and the economic decisions for which he was so widely vilified by his countrymen. My own knowledge of macroeconomics is weak enough (as attested to by my grades) to leave me wholly unfit to make judgments about Mr. Gaidar’s reforms. Nevertheless, I have great respect for his courage as a leader. Few of us can understand the uncertainty of that period, particularly regarding the task of reforming a 75-year old command economy, something that had not been tried successfully at that time. Mr. Gaidar’s decisions were bold, but extremely unpopular and painful for thousands if not millions of Russian citizens. However, they were the indispensable foundation of moving Russia away from its Soviet past. I imagine that Mr. Gaidar must have known that his political future would be imperiled by these decisions. The retribution was swift– his tenure as finance minister lasted less than six months and a later stint as prime minister fared little better. He attempted to return to democratic politics later in his life, but his reputation for the early missteps of the Russian market followed him.

Nations, if they are to prosper and progress, must have courageous leaders. The world in which we live, even if not in the midst of a crisis such as the Soviet transition, is an extremely complex one. Decisions on governing are necessarily made in the face of uncertainty and imperfect choices. But decisions must be made. Through their decisions, courageous leaders may become unpopular and lose the confidence of their friends and countrymen. The most courageous and correct decisions may hurt those that the leaders were chosen or elected to serve. Courageous leadership is not automatically rewarded by its beneficiaries and may require the sacrifice of personal ambition. But, despite its seeming rarity, it is indispensable.

By this defense of “courageous leadership,” I do not mean to imply that an unpopular decision, by virtue of its unpopularity, necessarily possesses a high degree of merit. But neither is popularity an infallible proof of merit. My point is that the United States, at this moment in its history, faces a number of difficult choices in its near-term future– decisions about health care, climate change, war and peace, constitutional protections, and national priorities, among others. Current national leadership is driven too much by electoral politics and how decisions will play out in the news media and for the “average American.” This does not mean that our leaders are irredeemably flawed or self-serving villains; only that they are human. We need leaders NOW who are willing to throw it all away for the sake of being right. I was struck by the following quote from Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner (who ought to know a little something about being unpopular):

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

President Obama once said he was willing to be a one-term president in order to make the right decisions and get important things done. Show me.

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