Review: "Transformative Political Leadership: Making a difference in the developing world" by Robert Rotberg

As a recent DLP Research Paper showed, remarkably little serious academic research has been devoted to the role of leadership in the politics of development, though it is commonly referred to in policy documents as an important factor. While there is a substantial literature in the fields of business studies, corporate management and psychology, there remains a significant deficit in relation to development issues, but two important recent academic studies have begun to reduce that deficit. 

The first was reviewed last week. The second is reviewed below:



Robert Rotberg (2012) Transformative Political Leadership: Making a Difference in the Developing World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press


This is an interesting and useful book, but one with significant weaknesses.

Rotberg's central argument is that individual leaders and the choices they make exert significant influence over the development of political cultures and institutions, particularly in young or postcolonial states: “But leadership actions greatly determine the kinds of political cultures that arise in newly emergent or postconflict nation-states... Additionally, leaders beget good governance, and the practice of good governance nurtures and enables robust institutions and strengthens the rule of law. The latter do not emerge in a vacuum but only as a result of early and careful leadership attention to core values” (p. 113). He argues that the value added of responsible and enlightened leadership is especially great in regions where political institutions are still embryonic, by comparison with more developed and settled polities.

This is certainly a valid argument, and one that is supported by the four case studies he presents: Nelson Mandela in South Africa, Seretse Khama in Botswana, Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. The argument is also supported by the cases analysed by Melo, Ng’ethe & Manor in their recent book Against the Odds (2012, see earlier review). A major failing in much contemporary political science and development studies is an over-emphasis on political institutions that ignores the impact of the agency of individual leadership. However, Rotberg's account frequently veers to the opposite extreme. He emphasises individual leadership to the almost total exclusion of structural factors. When political institutions enter into the analysis, they are conceived as something that flows out of political culture, which in turn is generated largely through individual leadership. 

Rotberg conceives of transformative leadership mainly as the embodiment of a range of leadership qualities, or, as he calls them, “critical competencies”. These include emotional intelligence (which includes a capacity for empathy), vision, the ability to mobilise followers, integrity, prudence, courage, self-mastery and intellectual honesty. These competencies combine to give transformative leaders the ability to lead appropriately and with legitimacy. This theory is derived almost entirely from the (rather limited) literature on leadership from the fields of business management and organisational studies, and does not seem to be applied specifically to political leadership, except in that the case studies focus on political leaders. This lack of political in political leadership is perhaps what makes Rotberg's theoretical framework feel so thin, perhaps even shoehorned onto the subject of development. It is also highly individualistic and psychologistic, taking no account of alternative approaches to theorising leadership that emphasise the dynamics of leading and a relational, systemic perspective on leadership. The latter is a minority point of view, but on the rise in leadership studies and probably more appropriate to the study of developmental leadership (see Grebe & Woermann, 2011). This individualistic view of leadership is then demonstrated using the four case studies, in which each of the leaders in question is then shown to have possessed and applied the key qualities of transformative leaders.

The case studies are very interesting and well written, if very brief given that each attempts to provide an overview of the political history of the countries in question. At times these chapters also gloss over aspects of the records of the leaders in question that perhaps deserve more critical reflection, for example the authoritarianism of Lee Kuan Yew. It seems to me that it would have been better to tackle fewer case studies. While this would have reduced the breadth of empirical data produced in support of the book's hypotheses, it would have allowed for more thoroughgoing and in-depth treatment of the cases, potentially resulting in stronger more persuasive evidence.

For example, to a South African with knowledge of South African history and politics, the chapter on Nelson Mandela seems too synoptic and shallow to be very interesting. Evocations of Mandela's leadership qualities (empathy, inclusiveness, decisiveness, courage, integrity) also seem to be repeating conventional wisdom without adding much by way of insight and analysis and at times it descends into cliché. In fact, the case study seems a weak application of the theory of leadership set out in the introductory chapters, mentioning some of the individual leadership qualities enumerated earlier, but without systematically analysing the ways in which Mandela espoused the qualities of a “transformative leader” and the ways he did not. While the chapter may have value as illustration of broader points, it fails as historiography in that it relies almost entirely on secondary literature, which it condenses into a kind of ultra-abridged biography. (Incidentally, minor errors such as referring to F.W. de Klerk as apartheid South Africa's last “prime minister” instead of president undermine the reader's confidence.) I would question the value of a case study focusing on such a celebrated figure as Mandela, unless something significantly new is on offer, either theoretically or empirically. On the other hand, Mandela is indeed an outstanding example of the leadership qualities Rotberg wishes to emphasise and to a reader less familiar with the South African case the chapter may well be useful.

Similarly, the chapter on Seretse Khama offers a brief but good summary of Khama's life and Botswana's post-independence history. If anything, the chapter was frustrating for not offering the detail a book-length treatment of Botswana would have allowed. As in the chapter on Mandela, the focus is on demonstrating how Khama embodied the virtues of transformative leadership and how his (and his party's continuing) domination of Botswana's postcolonial politics did not descend into autocratic rule, but preserved and strengthened a deliberative political culture. Khama was a highly impressive leader and deserves to be celebrated, but it would have been interesting to learn more about his flaws and to gain greater insight into the country's political development outside of Khama's direct influence.

In the chapter on Lee, a rather strange contradiction in Rotberg's account emerges. He successfully demonstrates that Lee was a consummate and effective leader who exhibited many of the qualities he considers essential for effective leadership. But Rotberg also accepts uncritically the idea that Lee's authoritarianism (including severe limits on freedom of expression and freedom to mobilise politically) was necessary in order to prevent Singapore's descent into chaos and to prevent communism from exerting a noxious influence over its political and economic development. It further accepts harsh punishments (including corporal punishment) as necessary to combat violent crime and corruption, even when due process is not respected. This stands in stark and unexplained contrast to the celebration of inclusiveness, deliberation and democratic values in the chapters on Mandela and Khama.

In Kemal Ataturk, Rotberg selects another widely studied leader (of whom a great many biographies have been written), but from a slightly earlier period. It sits somewhat uncomfortably with the other case studies, and would probably have benefited from a more thoroughgoing treatment of the context within which Turkey emerged out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. It nevertheless demonstrates quite effectively how Ataturk embodied the core competencies of transformative leaders. To a relatively ignorant reader, the chapter was highly interesting and left one craving significantly more detail. In contrast to the other three case studies, Kemal’s personal flaws are addressed throughout the chapter, which paradoxically seems to enhance rather than diminish the impact the chapter’s treatment of his transformational leadership qualities.

What the four case studies hint at, but do not spell out in sufficient detail, are the ways in which the leadership qualities of the four leaders allowed them to build and harness transformative coalitions in order to give effect to their visions for their societies. The analytical value of the notion of coalitions is that is helps to bridge structure and agency in the explication of societal and historical change. For example, much of Mandela’s influence during the years of transition in South Africa can be attributed to his ability to carefully construct coalitions out of disparate and disconnected groups whose interests nevertheless coincided (such as white capitalists and centrist economic thinkers in the ANC, who both sought to reduce the influence of radicals). Likewise, Kemal Ataturk’s modernising vision for Turkey was not simply relentlessly promoted by an influential leader, but had to be incrementally given effect by transformative coalitions drawing on progressive groups like sections of the military, the intelligentsia and the civil service. These are not processes that Rotberg would deny, but the case studies would have benefited from more detailed treatment of the construction of coalitions. If this had been done, the four case studies would be less vulnerable to being characterised as interesting but rather shallow “potted hagiography”. Rotberg's narrative is too selective in its treatment of the four leaders in order to be highly persuasive. The case studies are, however, never boring and contain many interesting nuggets of detail and flashes of excellent historical insight. Rotberg's command of vast sweeps of twentieth century political history is impressive.

Rotberg's account of transformative political leadership in four emerging states in the twentieth century does help to correct the usual over-emphasis of political institutions and neglect of individual leaders and their power to effect change that characterises much of contemporary political science and development theory. However, his theory of political leadership is not an integration of structure and agency, but rather the reduction of structure to the product of agency (even if individual leadership is thought of more as the embodiment of leadership qualities than as individual choices). 

It is perhaps his neglect of structural and institutional factors that leaves him unable to offer a diagnosis of what he considers the present “crisis of leadership” beyond decrying the absence of Mandelas, Khamas and Lees. Much of the concluding chapter consists of accounts of the poor performance of Mandela’s successors and despotic rule in Burma/Myanmar, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Zimbabwe. While valid counter-examples to his positive case studies, these brief overviews offer little that is new and do not explain the preponderance of “power wielders” as opposed to transformational leaders in the developing world. It is not unreasonable to expect that a theory of political leadership should at least go some way towards such an explanation. Rotberg’s contrasting of “transactional leadership” with transformational leadership (the former constituting the majority of heads of state and government in developing countries and characterised by a managerial rather than visionary approach) is nevertheless helpful in identifying the characteristics of truly transformative leaders, if not the contextual factors that might allow them to emerge in certain times and places. (Interestingly, and in contrast to Melo, Ng’ethe & Manor, he cites Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni as a contemporary African example of transactional leadership. This seems an appropriate assessment of Museveni’s recent leadership, which has been disappointing compared to his first decade in power.) Rotberg finds it difficult—not surprisingly—to offer prescriptions for improved developmental leadership. His somewhat limp suggestion of “rigorous exposure to positive examples, and some unabashed competency training” (p. 175) illustrates just how difficult the question of leadership remains, from the points of view both of theory and practice.

Transformative Political Leadership is an exceptionally well-written book, by a highly knowledgeable writer. It is also a very welcome addition to the emerging literature on the neglected topic of the impact of leadership processes on the politics of developmental outcomes. Unfortunately, it’s limitations lie in its theoretical and explanatory weaknesses and is hence somewhat disappointing in that respect.


Grebe, Eduard & Woermann, Minka (2011) "Institutions of Integrity and the Integrity of Institutions: Integrity and ethics in the politics of developmental leadership." DLP Research Paper 15. 

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