overestimating the impact of leaders

A perennial question is the relative importance of influential decision-makers (“leaders”) versus other factors that can cause social outcomes, such as the structure of institutions, mass opinion and behavior, demographic and ecological change, or sheer accident.

Reporters have a professional bias to overestimate the impact of leaders, because it’s easier to write about individuals than abstractions. Video journalists have the strongest bias, because they must put human beings on screen.

Headhunters and search firms have a similar bias. Like journalists, they are indispensable. I wouldn’t recommend trying to find a nonprofit or college executive without their assistance. But they do tend to overestimate the impact of the kind of people they help to hire. They will tell you, for instance, that Dean So-and-So “raised the ranking” of her college. Any Dean was, at most, only a contributing factor to a change in reputation.

I don’t know much about corporate boards, but I suspect they also overestimate (and hence overpay) top executives. That is partly because their explicit task includes hiring, compensating, and assessing CEOs. It’s partly because they tend to be corporate executives themselves. And it is simply easier for anyone to visualize the impact of a person than an abstraction. But if a board believes that the boss personally doubled the company’s earnings, they are not thinking clearly about causality.

Near the end of War and Peace, Tolstoy offers the opposite view–surely exaggerated, but worth considering as a corrective. He argues that of all the people who fought in the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon was the least consequential. In a battle, each soldier could decide to stand or run. If most of them stood, Napoleon became a genius. If they broke and ran, he was a defeated fool. His fate was entirely in their hands.

And it was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon’s will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will.

At a larger scale, Tolstoy says, the Napoleonic Wars were the result of an underlying historical current that caused great masses of Europeans to spill beyond their national borders. Napoleon was carried by this current all the way to Moscow. In subsequent decades, Europeans would instead fight their own countrymen in revolutions (and, although Tolstoy doesn’t say so, would conquer other continents). Napoleon was not a cause but an unwitting product of his time.

In her classic work The Thirty Years War, C.V. (Veronica) Wedgewood asks why so many people in the 1600s were so interested in dynastic politics: royal marriages, successions, and usurpations. Commoners were willing to die to ensure that one family prevailed over another. She says the reason was “the faulty transmission of news” and poor “diffusion of knowledge.” People just didn’t know about aspects of politics apart from royal persons. “The public acts and private character of individual statesmen thus assumed disproportionate significance, and dynastic ambitious governed the diplomatic relations of Europe.”

In those days, people would naturally explain important social developments as the consequence of leaders’ actions. For instance, many would have said that south-central Europe was consolidating because of the Hapsburgs’ fortunate marriages or that England had remained Protestant because James VI of Scotland (a Protestant) had inherited the throne. But these were myopic explanations. Much more likely, the Hapsburgs married well because south-central Europe was consolidating, and Jacobean England was Protestant because of the strength of reform movements in northern Europe.

We should be able to fix this problem today by gathering more information and analyzing it better. However, we now have the opposite problem: too much data. So much information is available that we cannot process it, and one common response is to return to understanding the world in terms of the behavior of a few famous or infamous individuals. To the list of people who overestimate the impact of leaders, I would add: most of us voters.

See also how to assess candidates in a presidential primary; how information relates to power, according to C.V. Wedgewood; Has Tolstoy been refuted by sabermetrics?; against methodological individualism; and pay attention to movements, not just activists and events.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.