Disclaimer : This essay is not meant to be regarded as the best or only answer to this question
There are many theories behind Man’s dog-eat-dog existence. Some point to the theory of scarcity which drives people from all rungs of society to compete for limited resources. Among the different classes of people are leaders, some of whom have shown that they compete to serve the greater good; there are others who back their good intentions with ethical actions. However, cynics and pragmatists put forth that leaders operate on the Machiavellian principle, meaning that the ends justify the means. What leaders want is to stay in power, and whether or not they demonstrate moral behaviour depends on whether that behaviour helps them retain power. Otherwise, leaders could very much pursue personal gains at the expense of morality. Unfortunately, even though we cannot paint all leaders with the same brush, there is plenty of evidence that give credence to this cynical view.
History has recorded the cruelty of kings and despots who aim to consolidate power or riches, or impose their will on the people. The most conspicuous and reprehensible strategy is to employ police powers or military action against the people so that these leaders can take what they want by force or thwart any opposition against them. Hitler’s genocide of over six million Jews during the Holocaust of World War 2 was conducted in a bid to realise the supremacy of the Aryan race. Similarly, under Pol Pot, over two million Cambodians were massacred because he wanted to establish an agrarian communism and sought to eliminate the cultural elite, the educated and all their supporters. In Egypt, General Al-Sisi who led the military coup that ousted President Morsi recently made his political ambitions clearer with his entry in the upcoming elections. More alarmingly, Amnesty International has described the 2014 court decision to execute over 500 Morsi supporters without giving them proper legal representation as ‘grotesque’. Such a ruling reeks of corruption and political oppression. All these episodes only reinforce the view that leaders pursue personal gains at the expense of morality.
Leaders of democratic superpowers can be no more moral than autocratic regimes. In fact the dynamics of world politics today gives a handful of countries, especially the United States, extensive control over the rest of the world. As esteemed British politician Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” When leaders come together, and they intentions are poisoned by the corporate machinery that support their political careers, what happens is oligopolistic economic subjugation of developing countries who are cornered into selling their labour and natural resources to the developed world for a pittance. Even in the case of America’s invasion of Iraq, it was found that the desire to control Iraq’s oil resources was one of the push factors for the war. The US government went to the extent of making fraudulent claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in order to tie Iraq to their anti-terror fight in Afghanistan. For the anti-war camp in the US, it became apparent that their government saw oil as being far more valuable than the lives of the men whom the Bush administration sent to battle in Iraq.
Beyond the direct use of force, leaders who want to achieve their personal agenda at all cost have a ‘weapon’ that they alone can wield in the state – the law. In dictatorships, the law becomes easily manipulable. Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is notorious for many injustices, but one that impoverishes the people is the law to repossess land and property without notice. Bulldozers can be easily sent to demolish shops or houses. Meanwhile, in democratic societies, while there are safeguards against arbitrary changes of the law, a leader who gets the support of the senators or parliamentarians can still achieve the legislative reforms that favour his personal goals. In the US, corporate greed reared its ugly head during the subprime mortgage crisis, when the US Congress voted in favour of bailing out the banks in 2008 to the tune of $700 billion dollars even as many common folk had their homes foreclosed. It was uncovered later that the bailout money was used to compensate for the loss in income of bank executives who were already filthy rich.
Another underhanded strategy is propaganda. What makes propaganda immoral is when the people are hoodwinked into believing that the unfairness committed by their leaders is inevitable, necessary or beneficial. So they unwittingly give up their rights to leaders who want to control them. During the Cultural Revolution in China, Mao Zedong used his Little Red Book that explained the communist ideology. The book’s quotations acted as guide for party members to weed out intellectual thought. The rights to having independent opinion, being creative and expressing dissent were quashed. More recently, American war rhetoric has become another example to show how ordinary Americans were made to believe that the democratisation of Iraq and Afghanistan was heroic, even though these countries remain unstable up to today. These cases highlight the power of propaganda.
Be that as it may, there is a need to acknowledge a slightly redeeming characteristic of wiser leaders. They are the ones who understand that they can achieve their goals by moral methods. They understand that they can gain only if the group gains as a whole. This is apparent in businesses, where leaders think about the welfare of their workers in order to get the best outcomes from the workers and consequently more profits for themselves. Google is famously cited for having a conducive and enjoyable work environment that gives their workers enough time to develop their own projects. The leaders use this incentive to draw the best creative programming talents. This is far cry from labour rights abuses at Foxconn, a China-based company that manufactures parts for Apple products abuse. Cases of worker suicides and punishing targets tarnished public opinion on the Apple leaders who left this problem unchecked.
Yet, in terms of moral excellence, another category of leaders supersede the ones who want a win-win situation. They are the leaders who do not appear to even have personal goals in the first place. They lead (or led) with moral aims – usually to liberate their people – and they operate ethically. The past civilisations would have been graced by such leaders in the form of divinely-ordained prophets, but in this past century, the world has also seen with admiration how Mahatma Gandhi led India’s non-violent resistance movement against the British or how Nelson Mandela struggled against Apartheid. Neither had personal political ambitions but put their lives at risk for the rights of their countrymen. Both are sterling examples of leaders who did not pursue gains at the expense of morality simply because they did not even begin their leadership journey with personal gains in mind
While such exceptional personalities may come and go, the fact remains that many leaders are self-serving. While some strive for a win-win situation, it is probable that more leaders maintain their dominance by violating the rights of others or manipulating others to varying degrees. However, this grim revelation is not a foretelling of our future. We must still have hope that if we work to build fair societies today, there will come a time when leaders will not want to pursue personal gains at the expense of morality.