LONDON — Hardly a day goes by without someone deploring the lack of political and economic leadership in our world. Commentators bemoan that with the departure of politicians like former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the world is bereft of political leadership.

All this moaning about a lack of leadership is surely a reflection of our own lack of vision and courage. Certainly we need more people with vision who are ready to press their views without fear or favor. But do we need the ruthless egocentrics who stand out in any list of the so-called great leaders of the 20th century? All were seriously flawed, if only because they did not know when to go.

Both Thatcher and Kohl achieved a great deal of importance for Britain and Germany, but both stayed in their jobs too long, believing wrongly that they were indispensable. They also became increasingly set in their ways and would not see that the world had changed faster than they had. However they at least accepted that they had to go if the democratic voters in Britain and Germany wanted them out. They also had their own ethical standards and stood up for the principles of democracy and the rule of law.

In war, armies and navies need generals and admirals who can inspire the members of the forces they command and who have sufficient courage, self-confidence and determination to win in battle. Unfortunately such leaders also need to be ruthless. It is the streak of ruthlessness and ultra self-confidence in the great commanders that generally detracts from their personalities.

Most of the other so-called “great” men of the century were corrupted by power and sycophancy and rejected democratic control. Men like Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong will be remembered not as leaders, but as criminals and mass murderers. It is far better for the world to be governed by lesser men who can hopefully be pushed out when they make serious mistakes.

Of course the fact that many modern leaders have tarnished the concepts of leadership is not in itself an adequate argument against trying to find new leaders, but it is a reminder that we must never set up leaders as demigods and must constantly remind whomever we select as a leader that he or she is only a temporary phenomenon.

In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair looks like he will be holding on to power for some years, but as the late British Prime Minister Harold Wilson said, “a week is a long time in politics.” Accidents and errors are difficult to avoid and a slip can quickly turn into a fall.

Blair has succeeded so far by imposing on his followers his own vision of party which will appeal the center. He has, as we say, stolen the Conservative Party’s clothes and they have been left foundering.

William Hague, the young leader of the Conservative opposition, is an able debater, but he has not been able to develop an image of a caring Conservative party. Instead he seems to be swayed by “the little Englander” mentality of his backwoodsmen. Britain’s relations with Europe are important, as is the attitude which Britain adopts toward the euro, but unless Hague can escape from the isolationist mentality of his followers his party will become ever more marginalized.

Unfortunately the political debate in Britain has been increasingly hijacked by the media which, in its often irresponsible reporting, whips up a cloud of emotional misapprehensions. It is a sad indictment of the press that so much of it in Britain is dominated by xenophobic foreign press moguls such as Rupert Murdoch and Conrad Black. The government by its far-too-obvious attempts to steer the media have often made things worse.

U.S. President Bill Clinton survived impeachment and has shown remarkable resilience, but his image as a leader has been seriously tarnished by the Monica Lewinsky affair. The Republicans have so far failed to produce any outstanding leaders to challenge Clinton. For economic leadership in the United States we have to look to Federal Reserve, Board Chairman Alan Greenspan and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. They have managed to steer a course which has prevented disaster, but how much of this is due to good luck and how much to good management?

In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Finance Minister Oskar LaFontaine have seemed to flounder and it is far from clear who calls the shots. In France President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are frequently at odds.

The fear in Britain is that German and French leftwing remedies for economic recovery will do little to alleviate the fundamental problem of unemployment. Instead of 35-hour weeks and high social security taxes, the European economies need deregulation and increased labor flexibility.

Japan managed to survive and flourish since the war with hardly any outstanding leaders. The consensus needed for economic success existed and the different levels in the hierarchy generally knew what they had to do, but the lack of leadership qualities among businessmen, bureaucrats and politicians became ever more obvious as markets turned down.

Some would say “Japan has lost its way” and there is no new consensus on what should be done. Events are forcing the pace of change. Business firms facing a serious crisis have been compelled to look among their ranks for men willing and ready to question the received wisdom and take unpalatable decisions.

But it remains to be seen whether the new leaders will accept the need to go beyond tinkering at the margins and will have sufficient vision to map out a new industrial strategy. The decisions needed in banking and in industry are going to be increasingly tough and the Japanese salaryman — especially those in their 40s and 50s — face some very unpleasant years. But unless the revolution, particularly in corporate governance, goes deep and wide, the pain later will be even greater.

Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi hardly looks like a leader with vision and with the determination to make changes, but perhaps he is a more effective politician than he at first appears. Perhaps too because he is such a quintessentially Japanese-style politician who is determined to survive, he is the sort of man who will take the necessary tough decisions, ever ready to blame circumstances for the resulting pain.

Perhaps Japan does not need leaders with charisma and the main need is for someone who can weld the consensus in favor of change. In that case could Obuchi perhaps be the man to lead Japan into the 21st century? He cannot succeed without the support of the top civil servants and business leaders.

The difficulty seems to be that while many of the younger generation are ready for change, those in the middle who will, of course, suffer most are likely to fight against radical measures. At least in the civil service senior bureaucrat are only in their early 50s. In business the top posts are almost all filled by men in their 60s whose ethos remains conservative and who often seem to be living in the past. As someone in his mid-70s I should sympathize with their dilemma, but I do not. We all need to know when to go.

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