Book Review: Transformative Political Leadership

Review of: Transformative Political Leadership by Robert Rotberg (2012).

During the final semester of my M.A. at Carleton, I had the pleasure of completing a course entitled “Transformative Political Leadership” with Professor Robert Rotberg. A distinguished academic who taught at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy’s School of Government (1999-2010), Rotberg was the President emeritus of the World Peace Foundation (1993-2010). Rotberg also directed the creation of the Mo Ibrahim Index to evaluate the governance performance of African states.

Professor Rotberg’s course was essentially an examination and practical application of his recent book of the same name. After spending an entire semester grappling with his theory, this post is to serve as a brief critique of both the book and Rotberg’s analysis of transformative leadership.

Rotberg’s objective is to highlight the potential of individuals – namely leaders – in the developing world. Consequently, Rotberg asserts that: “outcomes for citizens of the developing world depend greatly on the actions and determinations of leaders and on critical leadership decisions” (p.12). To support his theory, Rotberg utilizes empirical examples from the 20th century – Nelson Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and Seretse Khama. Rotberg explicitly asks his readers to consider how different countries like Turkey and South Africa would look today had Kemal and Mandela not existed.

According to Rotberg, transformative political leadership is informed by a set of competencies that allow leaders to “create and achieve shared goals … reinforce group identity and cohesion … and mobilize collective work” (p.26). Effective political leadership depends on critical competencies, including emotional intelligence, inspiration, legitimacy, trust, self-mastery, integrity, and the ability to forge an enlarge enterprise. These and other competencies, according to Rotberg, determine whether a political leader will be able to implement his or her compelling vision, a fundamental component of transformative leadership.

An immediate weakness of Rotberg’s book is that it presents only a single theory of leadership and does not offer many insights regarding previous studies of political leadership. Furthermore, it is sometimes difficult to separate Rotberg’s theory of political leadership from the corporate leadership theories that inspired it. There is little discussion of what makes political leadership unique.

Although the case studies are very short and often summarize or skip many important events, they are nevertheless interesting and informative. Each section presents the reader with enough vital information to understand the development of each country while also exploring the leaders’ contributions. The most interesting chapters are those that cover Lee Kuan Yew and Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, due to their links to authoritarianism. Ataturk, for example, believed that a brief period of authoritarianism was required before proper democracy could emerge. Furthermore, Ataturk forced Europeanization on Turkey and imposed active secularism. Of Ataturk, Rotberg declares, “Turks could believe in Kemal. Turks did so because […] he delivered tangible results” (p.163). A class discussion on this topic further demonstrated that Rotberg believes democracy may sometimes require limitation in order to establish the minimum conditions for it to prosper. This problematic contradiction was similarly present in his book.

If the purpose of Rotberg’s book is to offer support for the power of leaders and their potential in the developing world, his authoritarianism contradiction will raise a few eyebrows. How can a theory that excuses conditional, brief episodes of authoritarianism function in an international development climate that pursues absolute democracy? Moreover, how could we be sure that leaders who declare momentary authoritarianism are genuine in their promises to eventually pursue democracy instead of going the way of many leaders in the developing world – tyranny and autocracy? The qualities that contribute to transformative political leadership also say nothing about the intentions of these leaders. A close study of Adolf Hitler will likely reveal that he espoused more than a few of Rotberg’s competencies, although he of course used his leadership capabilities for evil.

Thus, one of the most problematic aspects of Rotberg’s theory is that it does not offer a realistic way forward for the developing world. During in-class presentations we examined other potential transformative leaders not included in Rotberg’s book and determined that few leaders were truly compatible with the theory. Leaders like Park Chung-Hee were difficult to assess due to inadequate critical competencies, while leaders of developed nations – such as Margaret Thatcher and Lester B. Pearson – were undermined by the political limitations of democracy. Park, for example, inspired massive socioeconomic changes in South Korea and transformed the country in many important ways. He also constructed the institutions and middle class that were vital for South Korea’s eventual democratization. However, Park was also a strong authoritarian and Rotberg had difficulty accepting that he was truly transformational. If so few leaders fit within the paradigm, what hope is there for Africa and the developing world? Moreover, if transformative political leadership is so rare, how did so many developed nations emerge and thrive without it?

Ultimately, Rotberg’s book provides many interesting insights. It is a valuable resource for evaluating the contributions of leadership to political progress and transformations, but its narrow scope is difficult to ignore. While other books have focused too heavily on the power of institutions, Rotberg embraces the other extreme by promoting messianic leadership as the way forward for Africa. While it is reasonable to expect that superb, transformational leaders can do much good in Africa, it seems vital that we remain pragmatic by focusing on solutions that can be tailored to leaders of all skill levels.

Professor Rotberg has produced an interesting, well-written book that contributes to the neglected academic field of political leadership. Rotberg has enjoyed a distinguished career and is immensely knowledgeable, having met many of the world’s recent great leaders. His class was equally enjoyable. However, participating in his class made me acutely aware of the limitations of his theory and its usefulness for the developing world. Leaders certainly make a difference, but they are only one potential source of inspiration and progress. Unfortunately, Rotberg’s overly narrow theory and analysis undermines his immense knowledge on the subject and leaves his readers with more questions than answers.


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