Presidents, Kings & Other Things

Seal of the US President and Royal Heraldry

Professor Joe Goldblatt

My politician father was once asked after a difficult election to define the best type of leaders. He answered “The best type of leader is a benevolent monarch.” Then he paused, rolled his eyes up to heaven and added “The problem is finding one who is always benevolent.”

Another politician once said that in a democracy elected officials should see their role as temporary leaders of the state and they should as soon as possible return to their normal activities. One example of this was the founding father of the USA, the citizen farmer George Washington, who after serving as president retired from public office and returned to his farm at Mount Vernon, Virginia to look after his crops for the rest of his life.

This past week hundreds of formerly elected members of the UK Westminster Parliament now have a similar opportunity to that of Washington. They may proudly retire, even temporarily, from public life and seek new pursuits until such time as they feel they are once again recalled for public service.

I suppose journalists will assess and analyse the recent major victory for the UK Labour party as the electorate’s decisive desire for change. However, I see this as having even deeper meaning within our society following a decade of uncertainty, turbulence in the financial markets, and fear of infection and death from the global pandemic. I believe the elctorate are looking for a new types of leaders within which to place their trust.

A few years ago I read a book by a social scientist who stated that the happiest and most confident socieities and organisations are those where there are strict controls of behaviour. He cited Singapore as one example where laws even include forbidding chewing gum because those who do this may inadvertently spit the gum onto the pavement and damage the environment. The penalty for chewing gum in Singapore is nearly $8000 and up to two years imprisionment. Therefore, I wonder if similarly citizens are seeking greater controls within society that result in stability and positive growth?

I know from my role as a leader of organisations that employees desire stability, security, and a healthy and happy work environment even over and above their financial compensation. The author Jim Collins observed in his best selling book Good to Great that the best leaders exhibit strong personal humility and professional will. He studied over 3000 organisations that experiended steady growth and he idenitified these qualities as being present in their leaders. For organisations to consistently thrive and grow, their leaders must be incredibly driven and ambitious, maintain a healthy sense of self-awareness, and be able to put the needs of others above their own.

Too often today in politics when I discuss social issues with friends and family they will reply “I like his or her party but I do not like the candidate’s personality.” I gently remind them that whilst personality is indeed an important consideration, paramount in deciding whom will lead us, are the policies and values they embrace.

When my father first ran for city council he lost by a huge number of votes. However, when he ran again he won by a small percentage. The difference in the two elections was the restructuring of the voting system and the additional time given to allow his fellow citizens to understand and respect his policies and values.

I believe now is the time for all citizens, in both the USA as well as the UK and in other parts of the world as well, to pause, reflect, reimagine, and reinvent our political systems to allow us to make more thoughtful choices. It is also a time, as proven by the recent UK election, for our politicians to refrain from functioning as benevolent monarchs and instead follow the model of George Washington by using this time to tend to their crops so that all of us may reap a better harvest of leadership in the future.

In tribute to President Washington, Robert Burns composed an ode for his birthday. The lines below confirm his admiration for a fellow citizen farmer and ploughman who always had the interests of his fellow citizens first and foremost in his mind.

Where is Man’s god-like form?
Where is that brow erect and bold,
That eye that can, unmoved, behold
The wildest rage, the loudest storm,
That e’er created fury dared to raise!

During this time of sabbatical from our political furies I shall ask myself and others where we may find future leaders whose personal humility and professional will may step forward for a brief time to offer us their service. Whether they are Presidents or Kings, they must earn our enduring respect because as Burns said of Washington, they must seek to exemplify in their leadership these words.

But come, ye sons of Liberty,
Columbia’s offspring, brave as free,
In danger’s hour still flaming in the van:
Ye know, and dare maintain, the Royalty of Man.

Professor Joe Goldblatt is Emeritus Professor of Planned Events at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, Scotland. His views are his own. To learn more about his views visit

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