The execution of Jang Song-thaek, and the limits of The Great Man theory of leadership


The Great man theory of leadership has been gradually eroded by recognition of the ultimate dilemmas of absolute power

The execution of Jang Song-thaek in North Korea this week [December 2013] has been presented outside the state as evidence of the ultimate power vested in its absolute ruler, Kim Jong Un. This assumes that the newly appointed ‘great leader’ acted without being influenced by anyone else. This is generally assumed as the action of someone with absolute power

As The Telegraph put it

In making this very public display of ruthlessness Kim Jong-un probably had three objectives. Firstly, [sic] nobody in North Korea can doubt now that he, and he alone, is in charge. Nor can anybody doubt that he is utterly ruthless in removing absolutely anybody who might, in the colourful language of the indictment, “dream different dreams”.
Secondly, Kim Jong-un has told his country – and the world – that not only Jang the man, but also the vision that he stood for, has been purged. Jang Song-thaek seems to have argued for a less closed North Korea, one that embraced trade and encouraged inward investment.
Thirdly, this is a slap in the face for China. China is often described as North Korea’s only ally but with every nuclear test and every provocative missile launch the relationship has become more strained. After North Korea’s third nuclear test in February China recalibrated its policy to North Korea.

The contradiction

Kim has acted decisively to ‘crush’ his enemy, as recommended by Machiavelli. I always felt this advice requires careful positioning in its historical context. Anyway, the leader who has to crush his enemy can hardly be the great all-powerful leader who is feared but not hated. It seems more like the leader beleaguered by forces internal and external to his regime.

Little wonder that ‘Great man’ theories of leadership are gradually drifting out of fashion.

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