Author Talks: Moshik Temkin on power, purpose, and the public good

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with Moshik Temkin, visiting professor at Schwarzman College, Tsinghua University, and a fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, about his new book, Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X (PublicAffairs/Hachette Book Group, November 2023). Temkin draws on history to explore a range of leadership styles, in both times of calm and crisis, to chart a path for what is needed in today’s turbulent world. An edited version of the conversation follows.

So does history make the leader, or do leaders shape history?

That question is at the heart of what I teach, and it’s also at the heart of the book. I think people are really interested in leadership. They’re interested in the leaders that they have and in their own potential leadership. They’re interested in understanding leadership.

But we tend to think about leaders as individuals primarily—people who made history, who changed the world. That is certainly true and very important. But I wanted to also show what really comes up a lot in my classroom. We can’t understand very transformative, important leaders without understanding the history that shaped them, the world in which they came up, and the crises that they faced.

It’s more of a question that never has a clear answer. For every important leader that you look at, you’ll find that a leader is made, or shaped, by history and the circumstances that leader faces. This is also very important: leaders change things, and they create transformation that makes the world different. They, in turn, make history. So the book is an attempt to not definitely answer the question, because I don’t think it has an answer, but to really capture how that question teaches us a lot about leadership itself.

Leaders change things, and they create transformation that makes the world different. They, in turn, make history.

So the best leaders are not only warriors, rebels, and saints but also great teachers?

They are teachers in a very broad sense, in a very public sense. A leader like Martin Luther King Jr. stood at the forefront of a great and important social movement for justice and equality. But in doing so, he eloquently explained the history of his people and the history of the challenges, the crisis, and the injustice that his people faced—and that American society faced. In explaining that crisis and that history, he always made the stakes clear so that his followers, and even the people who were arguing with him, understood the stakes.

They understood where the issue was, what the history was. By teachers, I mean leaders who can actually talk about the history of the situation that they’re facing, the challenges that they need to address, and their own role as well.

Even a leader like Mahatma Gandhi in India inspired Martin Luther King Jr., of course. He also stood at the forefront of a great movement for national freedom and independence. But he always did so while teaching people the necessity of self-rule: how important it is to liberate oneself from, in this case, the shackles of colonialism, of imperialism. The teacher part goes with the warrior part, the rebel part, and the saint part, and it is a necessary component of truly great leadership.

You focus on the role of timing when it comes to leadership.

In the case of Machiavelli, that’s true. He was not known as the author of The Prince when he was alive. He was known for his writing, mostly as a playwright—and not a particularly important one. He was known also as an adviser of sorts, a political actor, who actually wrote The Prince after he had lost power. That writing had a kind of posthumous importance right after his death.

In his lifetime, Machiavelli was not nearly as influential or important as he became afterward in a different setting. For example, we would be hard-pressed to say what kind of president Roosevelt would be in a different era. But he came up, and he became president in a moment of true crisis.

There are leaders who thrive in such moments. That is really the moment for which they are made. There can be other leaders; Roosevelt’s predecessor, Herbert Hoover, is a good example of this. He was probably a good leader for a time of stability and peace, but not for a time of crisis.

For a time of crisis, you need a different kind of leader. The importance, influence, greatness, and success of a leader really depends on timing. That’s something that the leader can’t actually control.

The importance, influence, greatness, and success of a leader really depends on timing. That’s something that the leader can’t actually control.

You say leaders can be warriors, but if they fail to be rebels they could be swept away.

It’s taken from the chapter that I wrote on the Pacific Theater of World War II. The first part of it deals with the Japanese decision—the fateful decision—to attack Pearl Harbor, which is still very enigmatic and mysterious to us. It also deals with trying to understand a leadership decision. There I see the Japanese leaders as really caught up in a momentum of history—a history that had shaped them, a history of imperialism, expansionism, militarism. It stretches back decades as a response to the forced opening of Japan and in response to European imperialism.

But by the time they arrived in 1941, they were so caught up in this launching of war and expansion that the decision to bomb Pearl Harbor seems almost determined by history. It doesn’t even seem like an active, deliberative decision. I always found that very curious. It’s very important for leaders to be able to step back, examine where they are, and look at the paradigm in which they are operating. It’s important for them to be able to question the very basic assumptions that they have going into a really fateful decision. That was the tragic error of Japanese leaders in 1941.

In a maybe more tricky and controversial way, it refers to the American side of World War II. Many of us saw the recent film Oppenheimer. There we saw how America’s finest scientific minds were mobilized into this war effort, as was the home front, into the building of a giant irresistible war machine that culminates with the development of atomic weapons.

The war with Japan would not have ended the way it did without the use of atomic weaponry. But you can also see in the film that Oppenheimer himself and the people around him were haunted by what the bombs did to the people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You can see the political and psychological ramifications of that as well. Sometimes leaders, whether political or scientific, get so caught up in the momentum of history that they become a part of the machinery, of the history of the world, that they almost lose their agency in the process.

You also focus on leaders who are powerful because they are in opposition to power.

If you take the types of leaders who are in the book, you really find three kinds. The first is, people who have power. You can talk about presidents, people who have institutional or formal power. Maybe they have an army behind them, or a political system they lead. So it’s interesting to see how they use that power, what kind of decisions they make. A lot of our books on leadership really focus on these kinds of people. Then there’s a second group. For example, the suffragists who were fighting for the right to vote for women. Another example is Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X, who were fighting for the African American struggle in the 1950s and 1960s.

They’re not heads of state. They don’t have formal power. But they have a lot of other kinds of power. They have moral power, communication power, followers, and they have a cause. They also have their words. They have some power, and they find alternative sources of power to achieve the kind of change that they want.

Finally, there’s another interesting category, and that’s where the opposition comes from. Opposition sometimes means that you’re quite literally in danger. Consider the French Resistance during World War II, or people who were escaping slavery in the 19th century in the United States. These are people for whom the stakes couldn’t be higher. It’s life or death. Their opposition to power is quite literally putting their own lives and sometimes the lives of others at risk. So it’s really interesting to see leadership in that context. How do you lead when you have no power?

I’ll try to translate this concept into the business world. For example, you’re part of an organization or a corporation. You’re not at the top, but you have some power. You might decide that you want to replace the power, or you want to be part of an initiative that would change the balance of power within your organization.

That’s a very tricky thing to do inside an organization because it can cost you your own career, your own success. By creating alliances, being strategic and thinking about the strengths and weaknesses of the person above you or at the top, you can find ways to eventually realize your own goals and ambitions within that hierarchy.

There are other people who might be in complete opposition to that corporation. Recently I reread the story of Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. I am very impressed with whistleblowers who are part of the structure but break with the structure. They sacrifice a lot. They sacrifice their careers. Sometimes they sacrifice a lot of money and family relations, too. But they’re doing it because they think that even if you’re in a corporation, even if your job is to do good business, you still have a moral and ethical responsibility and can still be successful. Those are sort of the parallels that I would find to the types of leaders that I present in the book.

What does history tell us about the kind of leaders we need now?

The list of problems and challenges that we have is a long one, and let’s not forget that we’re facing climate catastrophe. That’s a problem that transcends national borders, different communities, and ways that we might divide ourselves otherwise. We are still a human race, a human species, and we all face the same climate catastrophe. The question is, are we going to be able to find the leaders and the leadership we need in order to tackle that problem, which doesn’t seem to be aligned with the way that we divide ourselves and seem to be conducting world affairs?

That does worry me, but I remain hopeful. The reason is not because of any current leaders in power. I’m not entirely impressed with that gallery as it stands today. But I do see a lot of young people in all domains—in different walks of life, some of them in the public sector, some of them in the private sector. I see a variety of people who are very realistic and honest about the problems we face.

They’re not trying to distract. They’re not trying to work for their own self-interest and benefit. They’re not trying to manipulate other people or trying to exploit this desperate situation for their own good. But they’re really thinking about something which is often forgotten, and that’s the public good, the common good. There is such a thing. It’s something that I think should unite us and not be a controversial statement. It’s a banal one, and it has been forgotten recently. So we have a lot of emphasis on leaders as individuals who succeed.

Try to step up and do the things that need to be done. Ultimately, leadership, true leadership, is a form of public service.

But I’m looking for a different kind of leadership, a leadership that views us as a collective, as people who are basically, in many ways, in the same boat. I’m seeking a leadership that doesn’t always think about the ways in which we’re different from each other but about the things that we share, across borders, in different parts of the world.

And I see those leaders. They’re not known yet, and they’re not famous. But when we identify such people, then we need to encourage them. We need to rally around them, help them, support them. If people who are listening to this view themselves as such leaders, then they shouldn’t be shy. Try to step up and do the things that need to be done. Ultimately, leadership, true leadership, is a form of public service.

Your book doesn’t have any business leaders in it.

Business is in the book more implicitly than explicitly. These moments of crisis in history can also be applicable to the business world. When we look at business as a very dominant factor in our society, which it certainly is, that’s partly because we live in a society that favors business. Business thrives in this society. A CEO of a company is going to be an important, influential, and admired person, and often a very powerful person.

That means that sometimes CEOs don’t face the kind of crises and challenges that some of the leaders in the book face. I often write about people who are in great danger—sometimes in danger of their lives. Sometimes they are fighting for very basic freedoms. So that’s a little bit different in the political world than it is in the business world.

But if you look at the different examples and you examine how leaders emerge in different situations—how they deal, for example, with hierarchy, how they deal with temporary crises, how they might find themselves on the outs, how they might try to realize their ambitions—business leaders have a lot to learn as well.

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