Sunday, September 08, 2019

War and Peace: Tolstoy's rejection of 'Great Man' leadership myth

Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), left, and Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in Gaspra, Crimea, May 1901. At a previous meeting, Tolstoy commented, “You know, I hate your plays. Shakespeare was a bad writer, and I consider your plays even worse than his.'"

Leo Tolstoy (Lev Nikoláyevich Graf (Count) Tolstóy, in Russian,) one of the world’s greatest novelists, is the author of the novel 'War and Peace,' which was written in 1865–1869. It is set in the period from 1805 to 1820 and describes the war between Russia and France through 1812. The book also contains an analysis of leadership that has resonance today, and Tolstoy rejects the notion that great men were instrumental in achieving success or being solely responsible for failure in history.

In politics, success or failure can be determined by the economic cycle and in business chief executives who are hired hands get the greatest spoils during good times.

In modern times, in particular, in high tech, pioneer founders often are overtaken later by entrepreneurs who improve on the product or service.

The Great Man myth was popularised by Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), a Scottish historian and philosopher, who wrote in 1841:

"The history of the world is but the biography of great men."

Carlyle said heroes shape history through the vision of their intellect, the beauty of their art, the strength of their leadership and, most important, their divine inspiration.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), an English philosopher, biologist, anthropologist, sociologist, and prominent classical liberal political theorist, argued in 1873, that "the genesis of the great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown. If it be a fact that the great man may modify his nation in its structure and actions, it is also a fact that there must have been those antecedent modifications constituting national progress before he could be evolved. Before he can re-make his society, his society must make him. So that all those changes of which he is the proximate initiator have their chief causes in the generations he descended from. If there is to be anything like a real explanation of these changes, it must be sought in that aggregate of conditions out of which both he and they have arisen."

Tolstoy had direct experience of war in the Caucasus region where the Russian empire was engaged in a counterinsurgency campaign against upland Muslims. Later in 1853-1855, he was a member of an artillery brigade during the Crimean War.

'War and Peace' is said to have 580 characters, many historical, others fictional whose roles are far removed from the elites at the apex of the pyramid.

Simon Schama, the English historian, told TimeOut magazine why he rereads the novel:

"...because all of life is in its pages: private and public, the universe of the heart and the universe of war, personal history and the world’s history. Also because Tolstoy does astonishing things with the minutiae of life. No one has got the totality of what it feels like to live in human skin so exactly. And the book is startlingly groundbreaking in so many ways. I’ve read it eight times, each time with renewed exhilaration and passionate engagement. Roll on the ninth."

Tolstoy wrote on the 7th September 1812 Battle of Borodino, located about 110 km (70 miles) west of Moscow, near the Moskva River. It was fought between Napoleon’s 130,000 troops or about 20% of the June Grande Armée total, with more than 500 artillery guns, and 120,000 Russians with more than 600 guns. After the loss of 30,000 French and other nationalities in the invading army, and about 45,000 Russian men, Napoleon prepared to occupy Moscow:

" was not Napoleon who directed the course of the battle, for none of his orders were executed and during the battle he did not know what was going on before him. So the way in which these people killed one another was not decided by Napoleon's will but occurred independently of him, in accord with the will of hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the common action. It only seemed to Napoleon that it all took place by his will...Napoleon at the battle of Borodino fulfilled his office as representative of authority as well as, and even better than, at other battles. He did nothing harmful to the progress of the battle; he inclined to the most reasonable opinions, he made no confusion, did not contradict himself, did not get frightened or run away from the field of battle, but with his great tact and military experience carried out his role of appearing to command, calmly and with dignity (Book X: Chapter XXVIII)."
Battle of Borodino, 7th September 1812, painting by Louis-François Lejeune 1822

Duncan Watts, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, author of 'Everything Is Obvious, Once You Know the Answer' (2011) and a former professor of sociology at Columbia University, wrote in 2012 on what he called an early classic of social psychology, La psychologie des foules (1895); English edition The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1896), where Gustave LeBon (1841-1931) said the role of the leader was more subtle and indirect while it was the crowd, not the princes and generals, that had become the driving force of social change.

Leaders still mattered, but it wasn’t because they themselves put their shoulders to the wheel of history; rather it was because they were quick to recognize the forces at work and adept at placing themselves in the forefront.

[In a celebrated essay on Tolstoy’s 'War and Peace,' the philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997) summed up Tolstoy’s central insight this way: “the higher the soldiers or statesmen are in the pyramid of authority, the farther they must be from its base, which consists of those ordinary men and women whose lives are the actual stuff of history; and, consequently, the smaller the effect of the words and acts of such remote personages, despite all their theoretical authority, upon that history.” According to Tolstoy, in other words, the accounts of historians are borderline fabrications, glossing over the vast majority of what actually happens in favour of a convenient storyline focused on the skill and leadership of the great generals.

Thinkers like Le Bon and Tolstoy and Berlin, therefore, lead us to a radically alternative hypothesis of social change: that successful movements succeed for reasons other than the presence of a great leader, who is as much a consequence of the movement’s success as its cause. Explanations of historically important events that focus on the actions of a special few therefore misunderstand their true causes, which are invariably complex and often depend on the actions of a great many individuals whose names are lost to history.]

On the centenary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) and a year before his own death, Leo Tolstoy explained why the 16th president of the United States was his hero:

"Now, why was Lincoln so great that he overshadows all other national heroes? He really was not a great general like Napoleon or Washington; he was not such a skilful statesman as Gladstone or Frederick the Great; but his supremacy expresses itself altogether in his peculiar moral power and in the greatness of his character. He had come through many hardships and much experience to the realization that the greatest human achievement is love. He was what Beethoven was in music, Dante in poetry, Raphael in painting, and Christ in the philosophy of life. He aspired to be divine — and he was...the highest heroism is that which is based on humanity, truth, justice and pity; all other forms are doomed to forgetfulness. The greatness of Aristotle or Kant is insignificant compared with the greatness of Buddha, Moses and Christ. The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln. His example is universal and will last thousands of years. Washington was a typical American, Napoleon was a typical Frenchman, but Lincoln was a humanitarian as broad as the world. He was bigger than his country — bigger than all the presidents together. Why? Because he loved his enemies as himself and because he was a universal individualist who wanted to see himself in the world — not the world in himself. He was great through his simplicity and was noble through his charity."

Opening pages of 'The Hedgehog and the Fox.'

The Grande Armée, led by French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on June 24, 1812 crossed the Neman River, invading Russia from present-day Poland. It had an estimated 685,000 soldiers (including about 400,000 soldiers from France) and the military invasion was the biggest in history up to that point. The army entered a deserted Moscow in the early afternoon of September 14, 1812, with most of the 275,000 residents gone. Soon after midnight, a huge fire engulfed the city. Napoleon had expected Tsar Alexander I to surrender but he had gone too. On October 19, 1812, the starving army began a retreat. Only about 70,000 men survived to leave Russia by December 1812 (excluding deserters and about 100,000 prisoners). The copy of the painting above shows Napoleon leaving Moscow.
Napoleon Bonaparte, the acclaimed brilliant military strategist who had captured most of Europe, had been great, lucky, eventually monumentally reckless and stupid — it shouldn't have been a surprise that the Russians, the militarily inferior force, would respond with a scorched-earth plan where food for the men and horses of the Grande Armée would be scarce.
Modern redrawing of Charles Joseph Minard's famous figurative map of the 1812 French invasion of Russia, including a table of temperatures translated from degrees Réaumur to degrees Fahrenheit and Celsius — original map size.
There have been various estimates of the size of the Grande Armée that invaded Russia and the number that left Russia by December 1812. Minard put the invasion force at 422,000 while Richard Riehn in his 1990 book '1812: Napoleon's Russian Campaign' put the estimate at 685,000 with about 70,000 escaping back across the border. Riehn wrote that logistical problems began from the outset with heavy rain on Lithuania's dirt-track roads turning "into bottomless mires. Wagons sank up to their hubs; horses dropped from exhaustion; men lost their boots. Stalled wagons became obstacles that forced men around them and stopped supply wagons and artillery columns. Then came the sun which would bake the deep ruts into canyons of concrete." By the time Napoleon entered Smolensk (369 km west of Moscow), on August 17, he had lost 130,000 men (mainly due to sickness, poor rations and desertion) and 80,000 horses.
Estimates of the nationality breakdown of the Grande Armée are: 410,000 Frenchmen; 95,000 Poles; 35,000 Austrians; 30,000 Italians; 24,000 Bavarians; 20,000 Saxons; 20,000 Prussians; 17,000 Westphalians; 15,000 Swiss; 10,000 Danes and Norwegians; 4,000 Portuguese; 3,500 Croats and 2,000 Irish.
While civilian deaths are hard to estimate, historians, say about 1m were killed including civilians — fairly evenly split between the French and Russians.

Modern times

We are familiar in contemporary times with political and business leaders claiming credit for good news while blaming events beyond their control for their failures.

Prof John Kay, the Financial Times columnist, wrote a piece in October 2008 — possibly the scariest month of the financial crisis — with the title 'Could Napoleon have coped in a credit crunch?' (John Kay's blog):

"John Sculley was chief executive of Apple from 1983 to 1993. He gave an extended account of his experiences to Fortune magazine, which posed the question: “Sculley – chump or champ?” Mr Sculley's tenure included a period of great success — Apple’s graphical user interface brought the present computer within the capabilities of everyone; and a period of serious failure — Microsoft achieved almost complete dominance of the industry. How could one man have been both so right and so wrong?
The analysis overlooked the obvious answer — that neither Apple’s success nor its failure had much to do with Mr Sculley, an able corporate bureaucrat who rode the roller-coaster of high technology. Our desire to see history through the lives of great men blinds us to the real complexity of politics, business and finance, and leads us to find intentionality and design where there are only chance and improvisation."

Following the death of Steve Jobs, Apple co-founder, Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker, wrote in a piece 'The Tweaker - The real genius of Steve Jobs':

"One of the great puzzles of the industrial revolution is why it began in England. Why not France, or Germany? Many reasons have been offered. Britain had plentiful supplies of coal, for instance. It had a good patent system in place. It had relatively high labour costs, which encouraged the search for labour-saving innovations. In an article published earlier this year, however, the economists Ralf Meisenzahl and Joel Mokyr focus on a different explanation: the role of Britain’s human-capital advantage — in particular, on a group they call “tweakers.” They believe that Britain dominated the industrial revolution because it had a far larger population of skilled engineers and artisans than its competitors: resourceful and creative men who took the signature inventions of the industrial age and tweaked them — refined and perfected them, and made them work."

The Great Man myth endures in respect of founders in the tech world (maybe Great Person should be used in current times but the old version is still apt in tech) and in the MIT Technology Review in 2015 a writer noted on Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX:

"Musk’s success would not have been possible without, among other things, government funding for basic research and subsidies for electric cars and solar panels. Above all, he has benefited from a long series of innovations in batteries, solar cells, and space travel. He no more produced the technological landscape in which he operates than the Russians created the harsh winter that allowed them to vanquish Napoleon. Yet in the press and among venture capitalists, the great-man model of Musk persists...The problem with such portrayals is not merely that they are inaccurate and unfair to the many contributors to new technologies. By warping the popular understanding of how technologies develop, great-man myths threaten to undermine the structure that is actually necessary for future innovations."


In 1992, David Halberstam (1934-2007), the American journalist, wrote a new introduction for the 20th-anniversary edition of 'The Best and the Brightest,' his celebrated history of the Kennedy team that drew America deeper into the Vietnam quagmire and he noted that the book’s title had entered the language, but not quite as he had intended. “It is often misused,” he wrote, “failing to carry the tone or irony that the original intended.”

Halberstam highlighted the difference between intelligence and wisdom," and said, "true the product of hard-won, often bitter experience."

Among the top 0.1% of US startups based on growth in their first five years, researchers reported that the founders started their companies, on average, when they were 45 years.

Leaders come with a wide range of personality traits and narcissism, which Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) wrote about in 1914, is among the worst.

Last year in a Pew Research Center poll 'Be honest and ethical' was chosen by 90% or more of political partisans in the US but in another poll in January 2019 94% of Democrats said they trust what Trump says less than what prior presidents said, while 58% of Republicans said they trust what Trump says more than what prior presidents said.

Walter Isaacson’s in the official biography 'Steve Jobs' wrote on the Apple co-founder's “perverse eagerness” for putting people down and Isaacson noteed that “people who were not crushed ended up being stronger” and that those employees who were most abused by Jobs ended up accomplishing things “they never dreamed possible” thanks to his harsh treatment.

This seems like convenient bullshit.

Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder, expressed a more nuanced view in a 2019 CNN interview:

"It's really easy to imitate the bad parts of Steve of at times being an asshole. I have yet to meet any person who in terms of picking talent, hyper-motivating that talent, and having the sense of design of 'Oh, this is good, this is not good'. So he brought some incredibly positive things and along with that toughness."

Gates acknowledged that he had been a hard taskmaster himself:

"That intensity, even though it went a little bit too far, was great for my twenties, thirties, forties. Now, when I'm a bit more mellow, when I'm not pushing quite as insanely, but I'm still clear about, 'Hey, that toilet design's too expensive. It's a dead-end, we're not putting more into that'," he said, referring to work at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Bill Gates recently admitted that not making Android was his "greatest mistake" in the "winner-takes-all" software market.

An earlier version of this article appeared on in 2016.


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