I recently came across again an interesting essay by Tolstoy in The Leader’s Companion by Wren. Tolstoy’s treatment of rulers and generals as history’s slaves started the journey and caught my attention. The following excerpt of Tolstoy seems to capture the heart of the argument he makes:
“In historic events, the so-called great men are labels giving names to events, and like labels they have but the smallest connection with the event itself…. every act of theirs, which appears to them an act of their own will, is in an historical sense involuntary and is related to the whole course of history and predestined from eternity.”
Tolstoy’s Challenge to Leader Autonomy
In terms of my response to this, on the one hand I want to quickly dismiss this as an overly deterministic view of leaders embedded in history. On the other hand, when I sit with this a bit longer, I find it helpful to consider Tolstoy’s challenge to look beyond the leader as individual to the larger system of which the leader is part.
Factors beyond the Leader
There are not only leaders—the “great men” to which Tolstoy refers—there are also followers. On this point of followers Tolstoy writes, “It was necessary that millions of men in whose hands lay the real power…should consent to carry out the will of these weak individuals [the ‘great men’], and should have been induced to do so by an infinite number of diverse and complex causes.”
In addition to leaders and followers, as Tolstoy alludes, there are “an infinite number of diverse and complex causes” that make up the organizational, societal, and global contexts within which situations of historic magnitude are carried out. Leaders are not islands unto themselves—they are surrounded by followers and wider systems that influence them whether they recognize this influence or not.
The Limits of Autonomy for Prominent Leaders
Although I do not immediately like the overly deterministic interpretation of history, Tolstoy’s challenge is an important one to consider. His primary argument is that those of higher social standing—and those of more prominent leadership responsibility like the Napoleons and Alexanders of history—have limited personal determination that may be exerted outside of the “predestination and inevitability” of their actions.
Public Leadership in Historical Perspective
This goes against the grain of contemporary notions of leaders setting their own course. However, it is accurate to acknowledge that when a leader has a substantially broad scope of leadership responsibility, there are exponentially more factors that influence the decision making processes of that leader. Many of these factors are outside of the leader’s own personal wishes and determination. As Tolstoy notes, even when leaders appear to “act of their own will,” the reality may often be that leader decisions become involuntary “in an historical sense.”
What do you think of Tolstoy’s argument about public and historic leaders? Do individuals actually lose some freedom, autonomy, and self-determination when they assume large-scale and global leadership responsibilities? Have you observed this as you read about large-scale and/or historic leadership?