nthposition online magazine

King of the Mountain

by Seamus Sweeney

[ bookreviews ]

"Alpha male" has become a part of the language so much that its origins in primatology are almost forgotten. In the 2000 Presidential Election, Al Gore allegedly took lessons from Naomi Wolf in alpha-maleness. Leaders the world over project images of physical health and strenuously downplay illnesses, as was clear from the recent documentary The Downing Street Patient. This, according to Arnold M Ludwig, is not just the latest trend in image consultancy, but reflects the fundamental truth of political power; that certain men (with an emphasis on men) are biologically driven to seek power

Ludwig, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Kentucky, has a certain taste for the grand projet; his previous books include How Do We Know Who Are?: A Study of the Self and The Price of Greatness, "a study of the connection between creative genius and insanity. Perhaps this evident comfort with Big Themes made him a natural to attempt to anatomise the "nature of political leadership", as promised in the book's subtitle.

Certainly the scale of the enterprise is daunting. Ludwig trawled through biographies, PhD theses, memoirs, histories and sundry other sources to compile data on 1,941 20th century wielders of ultimate power. A quick look through the notes confirms that this is a thorough work and not the tendentious prejudices of a retired headshrinker; unpublished theses and obscure memoirs abound. Certainly he is to congratulated on the sheer scale of the enterprise.

Yet there is a certain barmy quality to that enterprise. The primatology that features so heavily in the promotional material for the book doesn't feature much in the actual text. The chapters are headed with quotations from various primatologists, and most chapters begin with a little spiel on how chimps and gorillas reflect human behaviour and vice versa. However, Ludwig's real passion seems to be for statistical analysis of the mass of data he acquired. Some examples will give a better flavour: "Among the two kinds of democratic rulers, almost one-half of all transitionals and one-fourth of leaders of established democracies betrayed influential people who previously had served as their mentors or benefactors. As with the dictators, betrayal often turned out to be a good career move. The democratic rulers who betrayed their former benefactors averaged 6.4 years in office, while those who remained loyal to them averaged 5.7 years."

Or how about this: "Within the sample of rulers, 52 per cent waged full-scale wars, fought civil wars, put down rebellions... those who engaged in the art of war, as Machiavelli might put it, or implemented disastrous social policies that resulted in the death of many civilians, averaged 14 years in office and those who did not averaged six years, a greater than two-fold advantage for those who were willing to sacrifice their own people and kills others."

For all his extensive reading and his pains to detail his method, one feels he likes to find biographical facts that fit the mould of his theorising. Although Ludwig tells us how carefully he collated his material, he doesn't seem conscious that some of the less flattering reports of leaders' personal characteristics might be prompted by jealousy or even subsequent self-interest. The chapter on mental illness and rulers is fascinating, but as with the oft-promoted linkage between these disorders and creativity, there is a failure to appreciate that comparing a trawl through biographical materials of extensively documented figures - undertaken with the potential confirmation bias of a desire to show that the two are linked - with the raw prevalence rates of mental disorder in a general population - usually only diagnosed if brought attention of the medical profession - is not a fair comparison. If all our diaries and letters, and all those who ever knew us - especially those who never knew us - were consulted, it is hardly likely any would not be diagnosed with something or other.

He has a weakness for amusing but perhaps unrepresentative anecdotes - for example, Warren Harding, while far from a great president, was perhaps not the utter nonentity that is suggested in Ludwig's account. Again, one wonders how much Ludwig allowed for the universal propensity to embellish stories involving the great and the good. More serious are his lapses of knowledge. "Margaret Thatcher saved Grenada from the Argentinians", he announces, which would have been a surprise to all concerned. David Trimble might be surprised to feature on a list of "Nobel Peace Prize winners who previously engaged in war", more specifically he is described as "Protestant Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) which was involved in 30 years of violence" Whatever one thinks of the UUP, it is perhaps stretching things to accuse it of involvement in violence. Given the wide range of leaders featured, there must be surely be plenty more mistakes (or at least, highly tendentious assertions) if my own limited knowledge detected some so quickly.

Ludwig's fundamental thesis - that those who seek power are biologically driven to do so, and their behaviour follows this biological drive - is never adequately explained, aside from the odd parallel with the other Great Apes. Women, as Ludwig writes, made up only 1.4 per cent of the rulers concerned. This isn't something that Ludwig could help, and when the oft-ineffectual wives and daughters of male rulers (for some reason the daughters are made of considerably sterner stuff than most of the wives, in Ludwig's account) are factored out, we are down to 0.78%.

Ludwig proceeds (for the benefit of his thesis, one feels) to describe these leaders as quasi-male. Some of this is bit contrived; examples from his catalogue of female leaders: "Gro Harlem Brutland of Norway (a former physician with a mind as sharp as a scalpel), Jenny Shipley of New Zealand (described by opponents as a "perfumed bulldozer") This reads like someone trying a bit too hard to masculinise his female leaders.

He divides rulers into Monarchs, Tyrants, Visionaries ("a visionary has an idealistic rationale for oppressing and killing people, and a tyrant does not"), Authoritarians, Transitionals (leaders of emerging democracies, "Father of the Country" type figures with concomitant paternalistic tendencies) and leaders of established democracies. This section - bringing his statistical analysis to a discussion of these various types of leader - is by some way the most consistently sensible and least tendentious section of the book.

The key to much of this statistical analysis is the Personal Greatness Score. This reminded me of Dr J Evans Pritchard's criteria for measuring the greatness of poetry as portrayed in Dead Poet's Society, with "how artfullly the objective of the poem has been rendered" on the x axis, and "how important is that objective" on the y axis. The Personal Greatness score is a combination of "Something From Nothing" (the best score in which is obtained for being "the leader in the struggle to create a new nation or the establishment of independence"), "More Than Before" (in terms of territory), "Staying Power", "Military Prowess During Reign", "Social Engineering" ("the leader introduced broad legislation with little or no social precedent that changed the basic nature of society for better or for worse"), "Economic Prosperity", "Statesmanship", "Ideology"(is this really a necessary attribute for "greatness"?), "Moral Exemplar", "Political Legacy" and, last but not least, the population ruled.

And yet for all the barminess, King of the Mountain is a thoroughly enjoyable read. What it reminded me of most was The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene (a volume "produced by Joost Elfers) - this, rather than being a collection of readily applicable "laws", is essentially an excuse for a collection entertaining and even instructive tales and parables from history and myth. Ludwig's eye for an anecdote (paradoxically, he sniffily writes of the "anecdotal nature" of most previous analyses of leadership) is a good one, and provides much pleasure. President Jose Ramon Cantera of Panama was once importuned for money by a photographer who had snapped him in a compromising position with a young lady. Cantera cheerfully made an order for several copies of the pictures with the would-be blackmailer. "Papa Doc" Duvalier was a physician who made genuine contributions to the study of yaws, a contagious skin disease of the humid tropics. These sorts of little moments - rather than the massive Unified Theory of Leadership promised by the publicity - is what stays with you from the book.

Ludwig often tries too hard to be amusing, and affects a jaundiced contempt for rulers that may be entirely justified but, as a stylistic tic, is rather irritating. However, he does write readable prose. He is admirably sceptical of rulers, and his approach in ignoring distinctions such as right and left and focusing on the nature of rulers and ruling leads him to fascinating conclusions. Every single page contains at least one statement that strikes me as dubious or special pleading. And yet every single page contains something striking and thought-provoking.