What Nelson Mandela can teach to quantitative social scientists?

Surveying reaction to the passing of Nelson Mandela, Joshua Tucker ably states the view of many political and social scientists on the importance of leaders: they matter less than is commonly assumed. Compared to journalists, policymakers, historians, and citizens, political scientists attribute less importance to individual political figures and more to broader causes

Why do political scientists place less emphasis on the importance of individual leaders? One reason is that science means moving from studying specific phenomena to developing general explanations.

…But this way of viewing leaders should give us pause.  As Henry Kissinger once mused, “As a professor, I tended to think of history as run by impersonal forces. But when you see it in practice, you see the difference personalities make.”

Stephen Dyson writing at the Monkey Cage.

I’d say leaders and personalities are grossly under-researched (quantitatively at least) in social science. A terrific exception is this paper by the Bens.

2 thoughts on “What Nelson Mandela can teach to quantitative social scientists?

  1. Some interesting work on this at DRI presented a few weeks back by a PhD candidate named Steven Pennings called “Do National Leaders Matter? I think Bill Easterly is co-authoring. Might be worth a look. Haven’t read the paper though so can’t vouch…

  2. As in so many cases, I find that the organisational theory of business is slightly ahead of that of political science. As one example:

    Jim Collins studies of what differentiated highly successful businesses from their competitors lead to the conclusion that the only consistently present difference was in the personalities of their leaders. The result was his description of what he termed a “Level 5 leader”. The modest, understated, dilligent, introverted and detail-oriented leaders that are able to deliver spectacular growth consistently over decades.

    So yes, it seems the personality of a leader matters to how any organisation functions – whether a business or a government.

    What is particularly interesting from business, however, is that traits that are intuitively attributed to great leadership and consequently found in our top poiticians (charisma, vision, communication skills), do not appear to have any correlation to the leader’s organisational success.