Leaders of Change

Do the times make leaders or do leaders make the times?  I have long thought that great leaders understand the times and determine how to take advantage of them.  More specifically, I think many great leaders have had a naturalistic orientation to understanding their worlds in terms of what is achievable, in what time frames, and with what nudges.  They lead change at a particular period of time because they understand that period of time and how change can be facilitated.

The ascent of Theodore Roosevelt to the presidency after McKinley’s assassination marked the definitive arrival of the Progressive Era.  The Progressives advocated democratic reforms and greater governmental regulation of the economy to temper the capitalistic excesses of the Gilded Age. Roosevelt championed his “Square Deal” domestic policies, promising the average citizen fairness, breaking of trusts, regulation of railroads, and pure food and drugs (Morris, 2001).

Roosevelt in WWII (Kershaw, 2007) carefully sensed the limited appetite of the American public for joining the Allies fighting the Axis.  For example, The Lend-Lease Act enabled the U.S. government to lend or lease (rather than sell) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Under this policy, the United States was able to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II while still remaining officially neutral in the conflict. Most importantly, passage of the Lend-Lease Act enabled a struggling Great Britain to continue fighting against Germany virtually on its own until the United States entered World War II late in 1941.  The slower democratic process enabled many voices to be heard and better informed judgments to be made by Churchill and Roosevelt. 

Lincoln in the Civil War (Goodwin, 2006) informed his chief advisors and cabinet (July 22, 1862) that he intended to issue a proclamation to free enslaved people, but adds that he will wait until the Union Army has achieved a substantial military victory to make the announcement — September 22, 1862, five days after thwarting Lee at Antietam.  Emancipation would redefine the Civil War, turning it from a struggle to preserve the Union to one focused on ending slavery.  This set a decisive course for how the nation would be reshaped after that historic conflict.

Ghandi pursued independence of India over decades.  Gandhi’s leadership role was extremely complex. Convinced that violence only begets violence, he began practicing passive resistance. Mahatma Gandhi was a leader that brought one of the world’s most powerful nations to its knees by using peace, love and integrity as his method for change.  Martin Luther King, Jr. pursued a similar strategy, which required at least as much patience and is ongoing.

Of course, not all leaders similarly exploit their understanding of the times.  Leaders such as Franco, Hitler, Mussolini, Putin, and Stalin read the “tea leaves” and played to frustration, anger, etc., also including repression and violence.  Trump tried to emulate them with notable, but thus far limited success.  So, successfully leading change does not always imply that changes are positive.  Hitler’s holocaust, Stalin’s purges, and Putin’s atrocities can be the outcomes.

This begs the question of how to understand the drivers of change and possible outcomes.  Are shared aspirations and visions, as well as trust and commitment driving change?  Or, are anger, resentments, and tribal identities the drivers?  The issues involve not only understanding these distinctions, but understanding processes to support the former and mitigate the latter.


Goodwin, D.K. (2006). Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kershaw, I. (2007). Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World, 1940-1941. New York: Penguin.

Morris, E. (2001). The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Random House.

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