The reflexive instinct to characterize political leaders as weak or strong has become an embedded “either-or distinction,” observes international-relations expert Archie Brown, one that “invariably entails vast oversimplification.” Leaders who dominate their government, their party or their country’s institutional power centers are not necessarily the most effective. To the contrary, Brown asserts, many ostensibly strong leaders are linked with flawed, myopic and dangerously misguided strategies enabled by their excessive power.

century figures who sowed the seeds of their own demise included Adolph Hitler, who triggered his downfall in World War II with the ruinous effort to open a second front against the Soviet Union, and Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, whose murderous reign in Cambodia claimed an estimated 2 million lives and stimulated a Vietnamese invasion. They dramatize that “huge power amassed by an individual leader paves the way for important errors at best and disaster and massive bloodshed at worst.” In contrast, leaders who adapt, improvise, conciliate and even struggle are often more successful in realizing their strategic and geopolitical goals.

This is the counter-intuitive but splendidly argued thesis of Brown’s new book, “The Myth of the Strong Leader,” a lively and probing scholarly reflection on the interplay of power and high politics. The product of more than 50 years of study and inquiry — as well as the author’s dialogue with a vast range of international political leaders — this is an ambitious work made more compelling by its breadth. Brown, an expert on Russia and the Cold War communist world and an emeritus professor at Oxford University, applies his thesis as persuasively to totalitarian and authoritarian regimes as to democracies. Thus the intriguing historical personalities in his analysis range from Vladi­mir Lenin, Benito Mussolini and Fidel Castro to Franklin Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle and Nelson Mandela. Their stories are illuminating.

The youngest member of an exhausted, geriatric Soviet Politburo, Mikhail Gorbachev was tapped to become general secretary in 1985 after “three aged top leaders had died within a period of less than three years.” One of the world’s two dominant superpowers badly needed a premier who would not drop dead. “Annual state funerals,” Brown asserts with some understatement, “had become an embarrassment to the Soviet state.”

The new Soviet leader had an uncertain political foundation and no consensus for the radical reforms he eventually engineered. “To undermine the authority of institutions long accustomed to wielding great power was extremely dangerous,” Brown acknowledges. “Gorbachev, especially during the first few years of his leadership, was very careful to get the approval of the Politburo for each reformist step he wished to take. The meetings became much longer than they were in Brezhnev’s time, with members feeling free to contribute and to disagree with the party leader.”

Navigating a treacherous power structure that could sweep him aside at any moment, Gorbachev was profoundly challenged to realize his grand vision of domestic perestroika and a fundamental redirection of Soviet global power. Deftly “tranquillizing the hard-liners, even as he radicalized the political agenda,” the Soviet premier had to rely far more on persuasion and guile than on will and command. “Gorbachev was not, in the conventional sense, a ‘strong leader,’ ” concludes Brown. “He was not overbearing and was willing both to make tactical retreats and to absorb criticism. In particular, he did not fit Russians’ traditional image of a strong leader.”

Gorbachev transformed the Soviet political system; Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, in contrast, transformed his nation’s economic system. Both men catalyzed extraordinary change not because they dominated their respective political spheres but because they excelled at implementing stealthy and ingenuous policy innovations — often from a position of weakness rather than strength.

Previously a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo, “the inner sanctum of the party leadership,” Deng was exiled to the countryside in 1969 for failing to embrace the feverish anti-intellectualism and anti-authoritarianism of the Cultural Revolution, driven by China’s angry young radicals. Not until 1973 was he restored to his prior post of vice premier — only to be dismissed again two years later. By the time Deng was back in power and met Secretary of State Cyrus Vance in 1977, he joked that his international renown derived from the fact that “I have been three times up and three times down.”

“Deng never held the top post of Party Chairman, nor did he again become general secretary of the party,” Brown points out. Yet by the late 1970s he was more powerful than Chairman Mao Zedong’s chosen successor. “Mao in 1957 had described Deng to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as a ‘little man’ [Deng was barely five feet tall] who was ‘highly intelligent’ and had ‘a great future ahead of him,’ ” recounts Brown. “Mao was right, but he hardly imagined that Deng’s greatest legacy would be to destroy the essentials of Maoism.” As Brown emphasizes, “Having attained a position of ascendancy, although not of dictatorial power, Deng proceeded to pursue economic policies that were to change utterly the character of the Chinese economic system.”

The author is less generous in his assessment of two seminal British leaders from opposite political parties who each aspired to be a strong leader in time of war. Neville Chamberlain served as prime minister from 1937 to 1940. Arrogant and incurious, Chamberlain dominated the policy-making process by excluding from the government the most well-informed foreign affairs experts from his Conservative Party — men who also happened to be passionate critics of the prime minister’s appeasement of Hitler’s rise to power. When Chamberlain negotiated the infamous Munich agreement with Hitler in 1938, “He did not take with him any senior official from the Foreign Office, but instead Sir Horace Wilson whose expertise was in industrial disputes, not in international relations.”

In 1997 Tony Blair, then the 43-year-old leader of the Labor Party, engineered a landslide victory that made him the youngest prime minister since 1812. He served in that role for a decade, dominating the political stage, in his own words, by learning early in his tenure how to “circumvent” his party and “construct an alliance between myself and the public.”

Blair used that political power in 2003 to join his nation in the U.S. invasion of Iraq to uncover what proved to be a nonexistent arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. As Brown notes, ever the “strong” leader, Blair dismissed his critics. “He told an official who urged caution on Iraq: ‘You are Neville Chamberlain, I am Winston Churchill and Saddam is Hitler.’ ” Such egocentric historical parallels proved preposterous. Brown quotes the American strategist Zbigniew Brzezinski, who lamented that “an ally with an intimate knowledge of the Arab world and a deep grasp of Arab culture [was] so feckless as not to urge a wiser course of action.”

As these and other accounts in Brown’s fine work demonstrate, strong leaders often propagate a myth that obscures their weakness while putatively weak leaders may leverage hidden strength to accomplish great ends.

Gordon M. Goldstein is a managing director at Silver Lake Partners and the author of “Lessons in Disaster: McGeorge Bundy and the Path to War in Vietnam.”


Political Leadership in Modern Politics

By Archie Brown

Basic. 466 pp. $29.99