Max Stafford


When I was 17, my headteacher died suddenly. He was a visionary educator who had been overseeing his school for 10 years. I remember that, amidst all of the sombreness, a conversation sprang up about the best way to remember him and his work. At the time, the school was nearing the final construction phase of a brand-new theatre. Some of us suggested that it would be apt to name it after our headteacher (especially given that it was his determined vision to embed the arts into our curriculum that had led to its original proposal).


The reply to this proposal was that it had been his dying wish for it not to be named after him – he was, by nature, a modest man. Later, at a school church service, our deputy headteacher (by now having to act in the stead of a man he’d openly labelled a mentor) gave an address in our headteacher’s honour. To this day (twelve years later), I remember his words. Dismissing the idea of a physical memorial, he was passionate in his assertion that: ‘We will not build a statue to or of him, so that people in the future can stand in front of it and wonder about who he was. Instead, our best tribute should be to live out his values in the way that we take the school forward after him.’


Now, this is not an article on educational leadership. I’m afraid that my interest remains firmly fixed on our political leaders. However, these memories were in my mind recently, as I reflected upon some of the challenges being thrown up by contemporary events. In recent weeks, we’ve seen much discussion about not only how we should remember leaders but, perhaps even more importantly, which leaders we should consider. A great deal of this reflects a long-overdue public discussion on the racial elements of our political and economic history. To be clear from the outset, this article does not seek to enter into this aspect of the conversation – I am not research-active in that particular area and quite rightly leave it to those who are. Instead, I offer some reflections upon the key consideration of why we remember our leaders.


So, what is it that determines our decision to remember leaders? And why do we seemingly remember some more than others? Take the issue of longevity. It raises the question of whether we’re more likely to remember those leaders who’ve served the longest. A brief perusal of Twentieth Century British prime ministers would initially suggest that this is true. More has been written about Churchill and Thatcher than Heath or Eden. However, there are always exceptions to any rule. A browse of the bookshelves will also find the existence of more books on Lloyd George or Attlee than Asquith or Wilson, despite the latter two holding office for longer than the former.


Are we prone to remembering those leaders who stir within us a sense of nostalgia for the time in which they governed? On face-value, this proposition seems quite promising. For instance, many of the written histories of specific leaders encourage us to look back upon their periods as better ones than those that preceded or succeeded them. Many biographies of Reagan portray his time in office as a positive era, because of his ability to communicate an optimistic vision and reenergise the US’ image abroad.


However, the counterpoint to this is that a call to celebrate leaders because of the time in which they governed is problematic. It frequently ignores difficult realities of the period that set up a counter narrative. For example, whilst Brett Harper (2015), H. W. Brands (2015) and Iwan Morgan’s (2016) biographies of Reagan recalled the period in a broadly positive light, other authors have argued against this. Lou Cannon’s (1991) account suggests a president who was more out-of-touch with the cultural changes of the 1980s than his image suggested.


Even if we could identify a leader who governed in a period that had a widespread consensus behind regarding it positively, another problem occurs. Was that period “golden” or “better” because of the presence of that leader and were their actions epoch-defining? Such a view almost inevitably leads to hubristic accounts of both the period and the leader. This indulges the Great Man Theory approach to leadership (posited by Thomas Carlyle, in his series of lectures in 1840, as the assertion that history is guided and shaped by the decisions and character of small numbers of individuals).


Political leadership studies continues to need to break away from this theory (primarily because it advances the belief that leadership is not shaped by other important factors as followership, socio-cultural dynamics and learning lessons from shared pasts). Indeed, it is a conservative construction of the idea that leaders are born great and is, thus, a myopic and exclusionary viewpoint (and one which, moreover, was cast in substantially racial overtones).


Perhaps there is something in the events leaders confront. A large number of the books about Nixon have, somewhat inevitably, been focused upon the issue of Watergate. Memories of Reagan often revolve around his relationship to wider Cold War dynamics. However, though fewer accounts may have been provided of their presidencies, can we really suggest that early-Cold War events faced by Truman, or post-Watergate difficulties visited upon Ford, were somehow less significant? Of course we can’t. So, frustratingly, we seem to get no closer to discovering why certain leaders are remembered (for good or ill) more than others.  


Moreover, a sizeable number of accounts have also been provided concerning Nixon’s policy decisions on Vietnam and his opening of relations with China. Likewise, Reagan is also recalled in relation to his economic beliefs and the persona of the humorous “Great Communicator” that he adopted. So, it is not just a case of “Events, dear boy, events” but a good deal more complicated, with personality and decision-making also being of importance.


Connected to this point, might we favour remembering some leaders over others because the decisions that they took were more consequential than others? We lionise Churchill not only because of his powerful rhetorical flourishes (with Kennedy famously saying that the former prime minister ‘…mobilized the English language and sent it into battle…’) but also because of the decisions that they communicated. Indeed, it is hard to think of decisions facing a leader that are of greater consequence than those made in the face of war.


However, whilst Churchill may have to be taken as a separate case in this regard, we still make a choice about the significance we attach to particular situational consequences. Historians such as David McCullough (2004) and Michael Pearlman (2008) believe, quite understandably, that Truman’s decision to relieve General MacArthur of his command in April 1951 was of especial consequence, given that it showed the willingness of an unpopular president to assert his authority over a powerful military commander. However, whilst we still do remember the leader, it has since become a largely-forgotten incident – which is, in itself, a notable change, given the dominance of MacArthur in modern American military history.


Does the why dictate the who? In other words, does the reason for recollecting (whatever that may be) determine who we then remember? For instance, we might look to past leaders in an effort to learn from historical successes and failures. In so doing, we will logically examine those who took decisions related to the events being considered. This, of course, means that the affairs that have most attracted our attention in modern times (World War Two, the Cold War, economic crises, etc) will lead us to favour examinations of leaders who sought to control those events. However, this is a fairly superficial judgement on the way in which we select the leaders we choose to remember and it would probably take extended study to verify.


Connected to this is consideration of whether it’s a myth to suggest that leaders are more likely to be lionised if they are written about. Certainly, the sheer weight of biographies and related accounts concerning Churchill might suggest there being something to this myth. Further consideration soon undermines its logic. Hitler, Stalin and Mao have had more books and articles written about them than most historic leaders and yet, for the vast majority of subsequent leaders, they are clearly not remembered with admiration or a desire to follow their examples.


Do we ultimately remember “characters”? Churchill, Thatcher, Nixon and Reagan all had very distinct characters and are notable for various reasons – from linguistic ability & determination through to paranoia & corruption. Many biographies, articles and interviews have relied heavily upon explorations of leaders’ personalities. This encompasses quasi-psychological assessments, reflections upon motivation and the desire to somehow find the answer to that perennial question of “What makes someone a leader?”. Of course, larger-than-life characters make for more interesting biographies and, thus, appeals more to publishers’ commercial interests. So, the market is a key determinant – bigger characters make for better-selling books and, therefore, an apparent public taste for leaders that seem more personally interesting is perpetually reinforced and shaped. However, with the range of other factors discussed here, such a conclusion does not stand on its own.


It is fair to state that this article has raised more questions than it has answered. A range of factors clearly have influence on why we remember leaders and, additionally, why remember some and not others. Longevity in office, nostalgia, the events leaders confront (and their significance), the consequences of decisions, the extent to which leaders are written about, and the personalities concerned all clearly play a part. There may well be other, perhaps even more pertinent, factors at play. I offer few conclusive judgements as to the total number of factors or their respective weightings against each other. Indeed, rather unhelpfully, I offer few conclusions. But maybe, just maybe, we are living through a period where encouragement to question “Why”, without always knowing the answer, is in itself the most important point.


Author biography

Max Stafford is currently Lecturer in British Politics at De Montfort University. He researches into political leadership (UK, US and Western Europe), particularly with regard to consideration of new methodologies for approaching leadership assessments. His thesis, entitled 'Strong Mayors' Leadership Capital: New York, London and Amsterdam (2000-2016) was awarded in 2020.' Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.