Temkin on Leadership: Navigating History's Complex Currents

Temkin on Leadership: Navigating History's Complex Currents
by Victor Perton

Moshik Temkin's dialogue with Raju Narisetti offers a deep dive into the intricate weave of leadership through the lens of history.

As a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Schwarzman College and a fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center, Temkin, in his book "Warriors, Rebels, and Saints: The Art of Leadership from Machiavelli to Malcolm X," explores various leadership styles in both tranquil and turbulent times.

Temkin suggests that leaders are shaped by their historical context, yet they also have the power to reshape history. This duality is essential to understanding leadership, which is not just about individual actions but also the historical moments that mould these individuals. He highlights leaders as warriors, rebels, saints and educators who articulate the history and stakes of their movements, akin to Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

The timing of leadership is crucial, as shown by leaders like Franklin D. Roosevelt, who thrived during crises, unlike predecessors suited for periods of peace. Temkin also touches on the pitfalls of leaders getting too swept up in historical momentum, such as the Japanese leadership's decision to bomb Pearl Harbor.

Leaders emerge in opposition to established power, wielding moral and communicative influence to enact change. This is evident in the suffrage movement and the civil rights struggle. Leadership without formal power poses the challenge of leading against the grain, a scenario relevant in the corporate world.
In the 2020s, leaders should exhibit infectious and aspire to magnetic optimism. This optimism is about an inspiring, optimistic disposition as a strategic asset. 

Temkin's references to optimism in leadership are not at the fore of his writing, and I needed to do some searching. He recognises the importance of optimism in inspiring and tackling challenges. Still, he advocates for a guarded optimism grounded in reality and recognises the complexities and limitations of leadership and global affairs.

In "Warriors, Rebels and Saints," he mentions optimism as a trait of historical figures like Churchill and Mandela, who believed in overcoming adversity. In his interviews and articles, he also connects optimism to global challenges like nuclear proliferation and moral decision-making.

Temkin's critique of Reagan's optimism in "How the GOP Became the Party of Resentment" demonstrates his nuanced view. He argues that Reagan's optimism often excluded an eye to American shortcomings and perpetuated divisions.

Temkin suggests that leaders are shaped by their historical context. I believe the times call for infectious optimism to penetrate the narratives of gloom and doom and the pervasive cloud of global pessimism. This approach to leadership, combining historical understanding with a positive yet realistic outlook, is crucial for navigating the complex challenges of our era and fostering a brighter future.

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