What Henry Kissinger Says About the Essence of “Leadership”

Mark Looi
29 min readApr 4, 2023


Konrad Adenauer, Charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Lee Kuan Yew, Anwar Sadat and Margaret Thatcher. (Photos Public Domain or Free Copyright Use)

Rather than focus on the usual noteworthy leaders of the 20th Century — Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin, Hitler, Mao — the near centenarian, Henry Kissinger, has written a book about six lesser-known leaders, Konrad Adenauer, charles de Gaulle, Richard Nixon, Anwar Sadat, Lee Kuan Yew, and Margaret Thatcher. Kissinger had the advantage of knowing and working with all of them, providing a special insight. Like a modern-day Plutarch, he has summarized the basic biographical details of each of them and created a leadership framework to understand their impact.

The book is a study of what practical national leadership entails and he distills what made each successful in his or her own nation, context, and time. A central thesis is the middle class values that these leaders shared were the foundation of their greatness, even as they sought to demonstrate that leadership in the confines of their milieu. Using these six, Kissinger constructs case studies of leadership styles: humility, will, equilibrium, transcendence, excellence, and conviction.

Leadership in Context

According to Kissinger, leaders operate at the intersection of two axes: between past and future; and, between the values and aspirations of their people. Leaders lead by a combination of educating their people and inspiring them. They must also gather around them a team that can support their vision and carry it out. Leaders come into their own during times of transition by correctly diagnosing their society’s problems, defining objectives, and assessing the society’s capability to achieve these objectives.

Leaders must operate in an environment of constraints, risk, and competitors. “‘Strategy’ describes the conclusion a leader reaches under these conditions of scarcity, temporality, competition and fluidity.” (Kissinger 2022, xvi) Often leaders face an inverse relationship between the scope for decisions and the available information. In these situations, “instinct and judgment are essential”. (Kissinger 2022, p. xvii) The leader cannot work like a scientist, who seeks verifiable, repeatable truths. Instead, a leader reasons by analogy informed by history and experience.

The crucible for these six leaders was the 20th Century’s thirty years of war from 1914 to 1945; each took different lessons from it into the post-war era. In times of stasis, leadership is managerial, not visionary. But, in times of crisis, two types of transformational leaders are needed: the statesman and the prophet.

Statesmen embrace change but retain the essence of their societies and advance them through evolutionary processes. They transcend existing institutions and values when needed. They avoid personalization, sublimating passions to a higher good. They grasp what their societies can support and work accordingly to cajole, prod, arm-twist, and persuade. Kissinger identifies Palmerston, Bismarck, Roosevelt(s), Ataturk, and Nehru, as leaders of the statesman type.

Prophetic leaders imagine a new future, different from the past. They are “unreasonable” and distrust gradualism. “Their goal is to transcend, rather than manage, the status quo. Akhenaten, Joan of Arc, Lenin and Gandhi are among the prophetic leaders of history.” (Kissinger 2022, p. xxiv)

Most great leaders combine both these styles and the six profiled did so fluidly, switching from one to the other as needs required (and it might be added to the managerial as needed). Both modes have their place and risks, but the successful leader fuses these together in the right proportion and at the right time.

Adenauer: Humility

Konrad Adenauer was the right man to bring a defeated Germany back into the family of nations. He had served under the Kaiser, then in the Weimar Republic, and even under Hitler as mayor of Cologne. Adenauer resisted the rise of Hitler and was dismissed by him a week after he seized dictatorial powers through the Enabling Act of 1933 (after a few months as Chancellor). Adenauer spent the war years in purgatory, eventually imprisoned by the Nazis in 1944. Untarnished by the years of Nazi rule, like Churchill in his own wilderness years, Adenauer emerged to lead the Christian Democratic Union to power.

He pursued the opposite strategy from Germans’ after WWI. Adenauer’s was strategy of Europeanization, disavowal of nationalism, and humility. It also tied Germany to America, its security guarantor rather than to float as an untethered neutral in the middle of Europe. He accepted the division of his country and a potential long term occupation by the victors. He was all-in about being in the West and reconciliation with France. He understood that submission was the first step towards redemption. Above all, he embraced democracy.

In 1949, the Allies were still busily dismantling Germany’s Ruhr. But by seeing Adenauer’s strategy of humility, Robert Schumann, France’s Foreign Minister, who was eager to take advantage of the opportunity to bind Germany to France, put together a plan to create the European Coal and Steel Community thus creating a common market for these goods. In reality, the pact was the foundation for an European project of unification, which continues to this day. Adenauer then led Germany into the community.

Yet, many risks abounded. One of the first was German rearmament, which was necessitated by the pressure America faced from global Communism, especially after North Korea invaded South Korea. Faced by millions of Soviet troops in Europe, Britain and the US proposed that Germany rearm to help in the common defense, a goal that didn’t seem possible without German help. Seeking to parry the emergence of a rearmed Germany, in 1952, Stalin made an offer that seemed attractive: Germany could be reunified but neutral. It was a trap, which Stalin expected to be rejected. It was also a disingenuous proposal, as it would in time create a powerful, independent Germany in the middle of Europe, untethered to the West or East. It would be Bismarck-Wilhelm II-Hitler all over again. Stalin must have known that. Though reunification was tempting, Adenauer threw in his lot with NATO and the Americans, giving up the dream of a reunified Germany perhaps indefinitely. In the event, it would take 40 years.

Thanks to Adenauer’s leadership, the Federal Republic of Germany became a sovereign state in 1955 and the Western Allies dissolved the Occupation Statute which had overseen the new German state, and Germany joined NATO. In retrospect, this was the first step in the rollback of Russian domination of Europe.

Even as Germany threw its lot in with America, Adenauer was skeptical about America’s willingness to risk everything in a war with the Soviet Union in order to protect Berlin or any other European territory. This skepticism could have been exploited by Soviet leaders to drive a wedge between America and its European allies. Though a private citizen, Kissinger was sent by the Kennedy Administration to brief Adenauer on the relative strengths of the Soviet and American nuclear arsenals. He was stunned to discover that unbeknownst to almost everyone, the US possessed a vast superiority in both first strike and second strike capability — a second strike that was larger than the Soviets’ first. The American reluctance to brag about this reflected underlying strengths and a desire to not provoke the Russians. With this, Adenauer was mollified and “he was relieved to see what strength existed to defend freedom and that the main task was to see to it that there would be no human failings.” (Kissinger, p. 37)

In the end, the logic of deterrence and the moral foundation of the Atlantic Alliance overcame doubts and impatience about reunification. Adenauer set the standard for generations of German leadership: commitment to NATO, and imbued with a steely determination to face down the Soviet Union, even as they pursued dialog to reduce tensions and promote Western interests. The strategy of containment worked and decades later, Germany was reunified. Adenauer had chosen correctly and avoided an unmoored Germany, maintained the peace, helped America win the Cold War, and ultimately build a unified Germany in a unifying Europe.

De Gaulle: Will

Charles De Gaulle crowned himself the leader of the Free French much like Napoleon crowned himself emperor. In 1940, a defeated France accepted acquiesce and collaboration with Nazi Germany. De Gaulle forced the French to resist even though he had no official capacity or source of legitimacy. He willed into existence an undefeated France. Later, like Churchill, he would prefer the wilderness and a self-imposed exile than compromise on his vision of what the constitution of a French Republic should be. As president of the republic he created, he built a France that while a loyal ally, would act in its own interests and would not put its future into the hands of multilateral organizations.

Just weeks before France’s surrender in June 1940, Charles de Gaulle was appointed undersecretary of defense. He hardly had time to warm this chair when he learned that France intended to surrender. He immediately flew to London and announced that he was calling on all able Frenchmen to rally around him to build the French resistance.

He had no authority to do this and the government that he was still a part of had just entered into armistice talks with the Germans. When France finally surrendered, the World War I victor at Verdun, Maréchal Petain, became president of Vichy France. De Gaulle denounced Petain (his former mentor) and presumed to lead the “Free French”. Churchill knew a useful tool when he saw one and recognized de Gaulle’s leadership, a mere eleven days after his arrival in the UK! But de Gaulle was no vassal; he insisted that the Free French would operate autonomously, though under overall Allied command.

De Gaulle was a hero of World War I, spoke fluent German, and was an intellectual with geostrategic depth, publishing a book on the reasons for the German collapse in 1918. Early on, he advocated the use of tanks in mobile offensive formations. He also understood that in the next war, America would inevitably be drawn in and that whichever side it took would emerge victorious. He was determine that France should be on that side and thus emerge “a great and independent nation”. (Kissinger p. 59) In that respect, de Gaulle and France were fortunate that it was America that was the great victor, rather than Russia.

When de Gaulle arrived in London in 1940, he was not much different from Polish, Czech, Dutch, Danish, Norwegian and other refugees, who ultimately joined the British war effort. But he imagined something more: a great France, like the one that had dominated Europe for 200 years from Richelieu to Napoleon — one with grandeur. In de Gaulle’s view, where Richelieu sought coalitions to maintain an European power equilibrium with France as the decisive actors, Napoleon over reached and tried to subjugate Europe, an effort that ended in disaster for France. In fact, Napoleon’s strategic blunders led in a straight line to France’s defeat in 1940.

De Gaulle immediately consolidated his role by insisting on taking control of the French colonies that were now under Vichy France. He fought with Churchill and Roosevelt over what would control the French colonies conquered by the Allies: Free France under de Gaulle, or a British-US administration. De Gaulle realized that if the latter, a post-war outcome could be that France would be resuscitated under American or British trusteeship, like a defeated Germany. Though supported by Churchill most of the time, de Gaulle nevertheless exasperated his host. But this was a deliberate calculation to assert his and thereby France’s autonomy.

Though there were some rivals, de Gaulle possessed the vision, personality, and leadership qualities that assured his ascendancy to head the French Committee of National Liberation (CFLN). The CFLN defined the institutions and processes that would govern France’s affairs after liberation, assuring France its sovereignty and de Gaulle a primary role.

Getting his way with the colonies was one thing; mainland France was another matter. When the Allies landed in Normandy, it was imperative to him that he assert his authority. He landed in the British zone and proclaimed at Bayeux that the French “will continue to wage war with our forces of land, sea, and air. … I promise you that we will continue the war until the sovereignty of every inch of French territory is restored. … And the victory we will win will be the victory of freedom and the victory of France”. (Kissinger p. 76) It was an extraordinary claim — as if Bayeux had been liberate by the Free French and that French forces were on the way to defeating Germany! A few weeks later, he entered Paris, proclaiming to the city that the city had been liberated by the Free French forces — ignoring the fact that the Americans had graciously stepped aside to allow the tiny French contingent to enter the mostly uncontested city first. It was this chutzpah that led to charges of ingratitude and delusions of grandeur, out of proportion to the French contribution. Still ,a parade down the Champs Elysee with de Gaulle at its head, sealed his legitimacy.

This insensitivity to the debt he and the French owed to the Americans and British was studied. Without such mythology, de Gaulle believed he could not restore French pride and France’s faith in itself. His aim was to portray the Vichy regime as an aberration, while the real and legitimate France continued under his aegis and the Free French.

The war over, de Gaulle sought a new constitution to replace that of the discredited Third Republic. What emerged from the post-war Constituent Assembly would ultimately become the Fourth Republic, a parliamentary republic. Refusing to accept the compromises of forming a government under such a constitution, he resigned all of his positions in the rump Third Republic, stating “I do not want to be attacked, criticized, contested every day by men whose only claim is to have had themselves elected in some small corner of France.” (Kissinger p. 86) Indeed, such is the bane of democracies, especially the large ones! He simply chose not to participate.

Of course, he expected the French to beg him to return before long; in the event, it took 12 years, and three failed military adventures. It turns out that his hiatus was a stroke of luck; the disasters that would befall France did not besmirch his reputation and he could return as France’s savior.

The three disasters were the Indochina War, which France lost in 1954, the Suez Crisis of 1956, which showed French fecklessness, and finally, the Algerian War.

Algeria, unlike other French colonies including Tunisia and Morocco, was constitutionally a part of metropolitan France. However, the native Algerians didn’t see themselves as French and sought independence, a longing that was complicated by the presence of one million pied-noirs, colonists from Europe. Their struggle split France and caused the collapse of six governments in just 4 years. Finally, de Gaulle’s moment had arrived. The National Assembly fearing an army coup, looked to the former soldier to avoid one; the army thought a former soldier would stiffen the government and crush the Algerian rebels. All sides saw in de Gaulle what they wanted to see: a like-minded leader who would push their agenda. He came back as Prime Minister with the stipulation that he would only do so to preside over the dissolution of the Assembly and the drafting of a new constitution — one to de Gaulle’s liking.

The Fifth Republic was a constitutional presidency, where the executive President would appoint the Prime Minister and also control defense and foreign policy. De Gaulle would be its first President. At first his studied ambiguity allowed all parties to hear what they wanted to believe, thus paving the way for him to get his way. He realized inevitably France would have to accept full independence for Algeria. This nearly precipitated a coup by the army, but he stood it down, averting civil war. In the end, de Gaulle understood that Algeria could not be subjugated; and while unresolved, France could not move forward and develop its role in Europe and the world. Only he had the charisma, prestige, and vision to bring this about.

During his presidency, de Gaulle would establish an independent French nuclear deterrent and position France as firmly rooted in the Atlantic Alliance, yet retaining its freedom to act in its own interests should the need arise or if interests with allies diverge. He also made peace with the Germans, in particular with Adenauer, whom he treated with a warmth that was extended to no other. But, before he left office, he was called upon once more to save France during the student revolts and general strikes of 1968. He calmed and reunified the nation, then simply stepped down into retirement.

His legacy was great. “No twentieth-century leader demonstrated greater gifts of intuition. On every major strategic question facing France and Europe over no fewer than three decades, and against an overwhelming consensus, de Gaulle judged correctly.” (Kissinger p. 117) He also acted with conviction and courage.

Nixon: Equilibrium

Richard Nixon will forever be known as the president brought down by his own Shakespearean flaws — his deep insecurities and paranoia. Still, Kissinger finds a story of leadership in his former boss. It is the leadership arising from a keen analysis of history, an appreciation of geopolitical balance, and a boldness to break with the past to achieve strategic goals. Kissinger describes that Nixon ended the Vietnam War, established the US’ preeminent role in the Middle East, and helped break China away from the Soviet Union, thus setting in motion the latter’s inevitable demise.

When Nixon came to power in 1969, the Soviet Union continue to threaten Europe, China had become a nuclear power, and the Middle East was unstable, with many of its countries turning to Moscow for arms and economic aid. Above all, America was torn apart by the Vietnam War, both internationally and domestically.

Nixon was informed by a worldview that upheld the American way and its responsibility to defend freedom internationally, especially that of its allies. He believed that the US did not seek preeminence, but had it forced upon it by the end of World War II, and that the world was fortunate to have the US in a position of leadership. Vietnam represented a threat to that mission because a failure to end the war honorably would undermine it — to say nothing of Nixon’s own bigger geostrategic goals. But he didn’t think the US should have hegemony; instead he sought a world in which it would be powerful but its power would be balance by Europe, the Soviet Union, China, and Japan. This view drew from the balance of power geopolitics that characterized the Westphalian system and 19th century Europe.

Nixon sought to build American strength and alliances while maintaining ongoing diplomacy with its chief rivals. He didn’t allow ideology to trap him in a fixed position. He also didn’t believe that personal rapport was a substitute for the hard calculus of national interests. “Nixon’s strengths as a statesman resided at the two ends of geopolitical strategy: analytical rigor in design and great boldness in execution.” (Kissinger p. 143) However, he established the principle of linkage, in which progress on issues of mutual interest had to be coupled with each other. But Nixon wrapped linkage into an overall package that incentivized the Soviet Union to relax tensions across a broad front: detente.

For these strategies to work, Nixon first had to end the Vietnam War which directly impeded his goals. The first step was the “Nixon Doctrine” which stated that the US would meet its treaty obligation, protect its allies with its nuclear umbrella, and provide military and economic assistance to those countries resisting aggression — provided they were fully committed to their own defense. In Vietnam, this policy came into fruition as “Vietnamization”, in which the war would increasingly be fought by the South Vietnamese with American aid, while the US would withdraw its ground forces. In the end, after much military gamesmanship, circular negotiations that led nowhere, and an 11th hour escalation by bombing the North and mining its harbors, the North signed the Paris Peace Accords of 1973.

Unfortunately for South Vietnam, the Watergate investigations crippled Nixon’s ability to provide aid to the South. Congress eventually prohibited further US assistance and the South fell to North Vietnamese forces in 1975.

Nixon’s greatest accomplishment was the triangle diplomacy in which the United States began an outreach to China while negotiating with the Soviet Union on arms control. Famously, Mao volunteered that the Taiwan question was unimportant since “we can do with them for … 100 years”. (Kissinger p. 174) Mao, of course, was playing a weak hand, hemmed in by the Soviet Union with which it had fought a few border wars, and threatened domestically by the Cultural Revolution, which was spiralling out of control. Of course, Mao often spoke in ridiculous, exaggerated ways. Nixon only knew of China’s full plight retrospectively, but his instincts were correct. And, at a stroke, he ended China’s isolation and turned the strategic tables on the Soviet Union, which he would live to see disintegrate.

However, Kissinger finds that because of the crippling effect of Watergate, Nixon and his innovations in foreign policy were both discredited: “…the eventual unraveling of the Soviet empire was widely perceived in ideological rather than geopolitical terms and understood as a vindication of America’s confident verities about the world”. (Kissinger p. 201) In turn, this lead to an underestimation of the threat posed by collapsed great powers — whether Germany after World War I, Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, or even China as it sought to put its century of humiliation behind it.

Nixon was the author of an American Realpolitik that failed to supplant its traditional Wilsonian idealism. The next 50 years could have been very different had Nixon’s strategies prevailed.


Kissinger tells a wonderful anecdote about Eisenhower when he was incoming National Security Advisor in the early days of the Nixon Administration: “Young man, let me give you one fundamental piece of advice. Never tell anyone that you are unable to carry out a task entrusted to you.”

Kissinger was trying to find excuses for a leak in the first two months in office. Eisenhower would have none of it. Of course, the victor in Europe who had prepared a message accepting full responsibility for a possible disaster on D-Day, would think that way.

Sadat: Transcendence

Anwar Sadat was a leader who transcended the common expectations others had of him. He broke free of the constraints of his people and time to seek a lasting peace with his enemies. Yet he began as a revolutionary, opposing the British in Egypt and even attempting to contact the Germans as they drove into Egypt during World War II. His messages to Rommel were intercepted and he was imprisoned. This lengthy confinement transformed him, giving him an inner strength. Upon release in 1948, he joined the young officers who eventually overthrew the effete King Farouk.

In the new regime of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Sadat, even as he rose to the Vice Presidency, would assume backroom roles, never stealing the limelight from his charismatic boss. But he was forming his own opinions, especially about the Soviets, whom he began to realize were poor partners and could not help Egypt achieve its aims. With the untimely death of Nasser, Sadat got his chance.

At first Sadat seemed a transitional figure. As he moved towards policies out of alignment with the recent past, he faced down disgruntled plotters and ultimately consolidated power and set his own course. In 1972, he expelled 20,000 Soviet advisors from Egypt. He did this to show that Egypt was not beholden to the Russians and to open the door to negotiations with the Americans. But the overture and subsequent discussions with the Americans, which were led by Kissinger, were too slow for Sadat’s tastes.

Sadat believed that meaningful negotiations with the Israelis would only be possible on the basis of equality. To achieve this equality, he had to expunge the defeat of the 1967 Six Day War. Using ruses and extensive planning, Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israeli occupied territory in the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights. Initially wildly successful, the Israelis eventually counterattacked, crossed the Suez Canal, and trapped the Egyptian 3rd Army. The subsequent disengagement negotiations between Golda Meir and Sadat (through Kissinger) were the first tentative steps toward peace. Sadat had made war in order to ultimately make peace. It had been a bold gamble: to expel the Soviets, court the Americans, attack the Israelis, shock the pre-existing order, so that under an American-sponsored peace process, Egypt could regain the Sinai. No normal, risk-averse leader would have undertaken such a strategy. It is likely without the Americans and Golda Meir, he would have been unsuccessful.

Years of confidence building moves and negotiation ensued. Finally, his efforts paid off, in 1979, Egypt and Israel agreed to the Camp David Accords, ending the war between the two belligerents.

Unfortunately, the rest of the Arab World didn’t support Sadat or follow Egypt. Fundamentalist groups rose to challenge Sadat’s domestic reforms, such as women’s rights and other liberalizations — though eventually they would. Despite massive economic aid from the Gulf countries and the US, the Egyptian economy stagnated; food riots broke out in 1977. In 1981, the fundamentalists got their revenge by assassinating Sadat at a military parade. He had run ahead of his own people and although he marshalled his authority and power to make peace with Israel, he could not make peace with his fellow Egyptians.

Lee: Excellence

Lee Kuan Yew was an unsentimental, brilliant leader who broke through the norms set by venal, corrupt post-colonial leaders throughout the world to lead a tiny, multiethnic country with no resources to an unexpected level of economic success in a single generation. Lee had a simple vision: Singapore and its people must embrace excellence; its quest “needed to permeate the entire society”. (Kissinger p. 283)

Lee, like so many of my own family, grew up in the British Empire with Anglophile parents. He excelled as a student and like so many others in colonies, determined that his best way forward was not with revolution, but through academics. He won a Queen’s scholarship to study law at Cambridge and graduated with a double first and, in 1950, was called to the Bar from the Middle Temple (one of the institutions exclusively entitled to produce barristers for the English Bar). He returned to Singapore in the same year with the intent to practice law.

Singapore was beset by two problems: lack of housing and corruption. In addition, inflation was rampant and food rationing had only ended in 1947. Diseases in the malarial swamps were all too common. In 1954, Lee entered politics at the head of the People’s Action Party (PAP), which had a strong leftist orientation, a product of his formative years in Britain. Shortly after it was granted self-government by London, the PAP won the elections and formed a government with Lee as Prime Minister. The PAP eradicate corruption, rigorously enforced laws, invested heavily in education, prioritized public health, built housing, and invested in services for the people.

Initially, Singapore was included in the new confederation of Malaysia. However, friction with majority Malaysians on the mainland resulted in Singapore’s expulsion from the federation in 1965. At first, Lee feared that “Singapore had come a heart without a body”, (Kissinger p. 293) but this was to prove a blessing in disguise (though well disguised at first, to paraphrase Churchill), as it would allow the new country to develop without backroom politicking that was to become characteristic of Malaysia.

Still Singapore had no history as a national polity; it had no unifying creed, culture, or peoples. All of this, Lee would have to will into existence. As with de Gaulle, he simply presumed the sinews that bind a people into a nation already existed. But, behind the scenes, he knew he had to build up its military to deter aggression or bullying by far larger neighbors, while keeping up the drumbeat of propaganda of unity, reinforced with concrete improvements for the lives of ordinary people.

He adopted a bilingual language policy in which the four principle languages (English, Chinese, Malay, and Tamil) spoken by Singaporeans could be paired up. In the event, this was more difficult than it first appears, as the version of Chinese, Mandarin, he decided upon was spoken by few Singaporeans in 1965! Even he had to learn it, since he didn’t grow up speaking it! I, like many Singaporeans who also grew up learning English, remember struggling to learn Mandarin in primary school. Still, over time it worked, even as many Singaporeans are not strong in any single language.

Above all, Lee looked for pragmatic rather than ideological solutions. Like his contemporary, Deng Xiaoping, he “sought truth from facts”. He shed his early socialist leanings, since by the 1960’s, it was clear to him that market economies delivered higher economic growth. He opened the labor market to women not because he was a feminist, but because Singapore could not develop without half its population pulling its weight. Similarly, immigration policy was driven by the measure of economic benefit to the island, while multiculturalism was necessitated by the prior presence of multiple cultures. He was informed by a utilitarian view that socio-economic systems were in a Darwinian contest of “efficacy in providing the maximum good to the maximum numbers of a nation.” (Kissinger p. 298)

Shorn of a hinterland in the Malayan Peninsula, Singapore could not implement an import substitution model of development popular in the 1960s. Instead, Lee pursued foreign direct investment, upgrading its labor force, improving infrastructure and amenities, and boosting the quality of life to attract both tourists and foreign managers. To rapidly develop a new culture, Singapore became a nanny state in which the authorities would nag or fine its citizens into better behavior. Famously, chewing gum was outlawed because it served no utility. Still, years of steady economic growth ensued. Lee pushed Singapore to higher levels of development often by deliberately pricing out low wage industries.

As Singapore achieved outsized success, Lee turned his perspicacity to analyzing geopolitics, especially that of America and China. His favored framework for analysis was pragmatism, in particular which system delivered the greatest economic summum bonum. It was a materialistic, Marxist view of the world, but using it, he ironically presaged the fall of the Soviet Union. He understood and appreciated the idealism of America that led to its reluctance to be a true hegemon in the immediate post-World War II era, saying “there was a certain greatness of spirit born out of the fear of Communism plus American idealism”. (Kissinger p. 303) Yet, Lee sought the ear of influential Americans, like Kissinger, to first convince them of the need for global equilibrium and to avoid isolationism.

While he initially thought China was too weak to act as a counterweight to Russia, eventually, as China developed, he warned against the rise of a Chinese hegemon: “I don’t see the Chinese as a benign power …. They say they won’t be a hegemon. If you are not ready to be a hegemon, why do you keep on telling the world you are not going to be a hegemon?” (Kissinger p. 307) Nevertheless, Lee played a role in influencing Chinese policy in the Deng Xiaoping era, when China was still undecided about its economic policies. In a small way, Singapore under Lee was a natural experiment that Deng could see: economic development under authoritarianism, though Singapore’s was a lightweight one by comparison to China’s.

He glimpsed the long term threat of Sino-American competition in Asia but didn’t live long enough to see how it would develop or to influence it. Using his utilitarian framework, he may have plumbed insights about the future course of events that elude statesmen today. Kissinger assesses that Lee showed human capital in the form of its people and its leadership were the most important determinants of a society’s fate. It is fair to say that Singapore and its leaders had to come from far behind to mould a nation out of a polyglot mix of sometime antipathetic people with few resources or institutions to build on— and that this project could have ended up far less favorably, as shown by most emerging, post-colonial countries.

In the end, he knew he had “done some nasty things, locking fellows up without trial” (something a British-trained barrister would understand), but he did it for “honorable purposes”. (Kissinger p. 319) As someone whose uncle, Francis Seow, a former Solicitor General of Singapore, was locked up without trial, this rationale of ends-justify-the-means seems like a thin excuse. In the end, Singapore is fortunate it had British-trained authoritarian to lead them — rather than a Russian or Chinese one.

Thatcher: Conviction

Margaret Thatcher was clear in her vision of what a post-empire United Kingdom should and could be. She worked her way through the ranks of the Conservative Party against long odds: she was a woman and from the middle class. But, in 1974, she challenged Edward Heath for leadership of the party; he had just lost the premiership when the Conservatives were defeated in a general election. Few thought she had much of a chance, but when several other prospective leaders declined to run, she won as the alternative to Heath. Fortune, in this case, surely favored the prepared — which Thatcher always was. She immediately communicated her vision of an empowered citizenry, the primacy of private property, and a market-driven, rather than state-driven economy.

By the time Thatcher won office in 1979, Britain was at a low point. The war though 35 years past had exhausted it and consumed the wealth accumulate over the prior century. In the decades following, Britain’s empire was lost, its pretensions to an independent global role were dashed when America forced it (and France) to give up the Suez Canal, which it had seized in 1956. Currency crises in the 1950’s and 1960’s forced it to devalue the pound sterling, which lost its primacy to the US dollar after Bretton Woods. Britain sought to enter the European Economic Community (the precursor to the EC), but was thwarted by the French, specifically de Gaulle. Strikes, high inflation, and general insolvency eventually required an emergency loan from the IMF in 1976. Therefore, in 1979, the British people turned to a different kind of leader to lead them out of their woes.

Margaret Thatcher (née Roberts) was the daughter of a grocer and Methodist lay preacher. She was a good student and won a position at the University of Oxford, matriculating in Somerville College, where she read Chemistry, led the Oxford University Conservative Association, and passed the bar to become a barrister. She won a seat as a Member of Parliament in 1959 and soon built a reputation for hard work, fiscal discipline, and outspokenness. She also stood for rolling back socialism, which she blamed for the sharp decline in the British economy.

As Prime Minister, her government fought inflation with punishing interest rate rises (the Bank of England did not act independently like the US Federal Reserve did at the time), which triggered a recession and high unemployment. She broke the coal miners’ union which set the stage for tax cuts, opening Britain to be a global financial center, and privatization of nationalized industries in steel, gas, airways, and telecom. By carrying out these unpopular actions, she changed the outlook and attitude of the British people and ushered in a new generation of prosperity, and southern England boomed.

Though she began her political career focused on domestic issues, several geopolitical issues of the late 20th century solidified her reputation as the “Iron Lady” (a sobriquet the Russian gave her thinking it pejorative):

  • The Falklands (Malviñas)
  • Hong Kong
  • Northern Ireland
  • Resistance to Soviet expansionism

The first pair of these issues demonstrated Thatcher’s resolution to not negotiate over principles, but to ultimately seek a compromise. In the case of the Falkland Islands, she agreed to United Nations administration of the islands in exchange for Argentine withdrawal, with the final status deferred for future negotiations. The military junta foolishly rejected this offer and were defeated with an amphibious attack launched from a distance of 8000 miles that retook the islands, eventually leading to the junta’s downfall. With Hong Kong, Thatcher had a far weaker hand to play, but she got the best deal possible: 50 years of semi-autonomy, unfortunately, with no real penalties in the event the terms were violated (which they duly were).

Ireland has been an intractable problem for Britain for hundreds of years., going back to the 17th century and Cromwell’s invasion. Despite a deadly bomb attack on her and the Conservative Party at their conference in Brighton in 1984, she persevered and, in 1985, her government agreed to permit the Republic of Ireland a consultative role in the future of Northern Ireland. While this temporarily inflamed passions, it was a substantial step towards a comprehensive peace among the antagonists, which would come in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.

Thatcher was implacable in her resistance to Soviet aggression, and invested further in Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent, built around the Trident nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. However, she saw the value of engaging with a reformer like Gorbachev and, acting as interlocutor, she enabled Reagan and Gorbachev to begin substantive discussions. Much to her horror, this led to the 1986 Reykjavik Summit, in which Reagan proposed to completely eliminate nuclear weapons! Though she was not party to those discussions, as a firm believer in balance of power geopolitics, she instinctively recognized that giving up nuclear weapons was fraught with difficulties.

Towards the end of her political career, she resisted the unification of Germany and greater European integration, arguing that “we have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at the European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels”. (Kissinger p. 385) Even so, in the same speech, she anticipated the fall of the Berlin Wall and the return of Eastern Europe to the community of Europe. In the end, her political career ended because of her resistance to deeper European integration, which triggered resignations in her cabinet and ultimately a Conservative Party leadership challenge, which she lost.

It was Michael Heseltine who had brought her down; when asked recently what she was like to work with, he replied: “You had to stand up to her. She was very opinionated and there was no quarter given. She wasn’t someone who listened throughout and then replied. She would interrupt. If you wanted to survive as a cabinet minister, you had to wait until she paused for breath and then start again. Then she’d interrupt again.” (Financial Times)

She was demanding and difficult, but determined and uncompromising — and set Britain on a new course after the malaise of the 1960’s and 70’s. But she couldn’t adapt to the latest developments that challenged the UK in the 1990s. In the end, her resistance to Europeanization may have enabled Brexit, just two decades later.

The Characteristics of Leadership

According to Kissinger, these leaders arose from middle class backgrounds thorough meritocratic systems that largely replaced aristocratic sources of power. They all had a penetrating understanding of realities as they existed, yet possessed a vision to change that reality. They were learned, absorbing information from a deep literacy derived from books and reading. To that end, they didn’t shy away from divisiveness and confrontation. But they also understood how to cajole and lead their people so that an impossible future could be both imagined and then realized. This required “a capacity to understand the situation in which their societies found themselves, an ability to devise a strategy to manage the present and shape the future, a skill in moving their societies toward elevated purposed, and a readiness to rectify shortcomings”. (Kissinger p. 415)

Analysis and Critique

Kissinger has chosen six leaders that, other than Nixon, are not well known to contemporary Americans. He could have gone with the big leaders of the 20th Century, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. He might have chosen Deng Xiaoping, Gandhi, or one of the leaders of the four Asian dragons other than Lee: Park Chung Hee (Korea) or Chiang Ching Kuo (Taiwan). Certainly, Nelson Mandela would have been an interesting case study. Mandela combined many of the strategies that Kissinger espouses: conviction (so much he was imprisoned under harsh conditions for 27 years), humility, will, and transcendence. But these other leaders might not have illustrated his main theses about middle class backgrounds and meritocracy (though Mandela is again an exception). To Kissinger’s credit, he chose lesser known leaders, two from secondary nations, to illustrate his theses and to educate a broader public about their contributions to recent history. And one of the central conceits of Kissinger’s recent books is his first-person, eyewitness to history recollections, which he mines repeatedly. This book, for example, expands on his experience with Adenauer and others that he first described in Diplomacy. (Kissinger 1995)

At least two, Adenauer and de Gaulle, showed that it is better not to bargain away guiding principles for short term gain and political expediency. Because they were untainted by compromises and chose to withdraw from political processes or even suffer imprisonment, they emerged stronger and morally untainted when their time came, thus magnifying the legitimacy of their power. There are all too many contemporary leaders who do not have the same fortitude and belief in their principles and are willing to trade them away to gain or hold on to power. In the end, it was again Adenauer and de Gaulle who while retaining agency and independence for their respective countries, brought the peace between Germany and France that had eluded centuries of their leaders.

All of these leaders envisioned a future that others could not. And they could also design and implement concrete steps to bring it about, often having to overcome recalcitrant countrymen, special interests or naysayers. For that vision and its attainment, most paid a price, but none more so than Sadat. However, his failings on the domestic front (there was no peace dividend that benefited ordinary Egyptians) led to his demise more so than his peace with Israel; his failure to deliver development and prosperity was surprising given his ability to see through to the heart of issues. Somehow, he could not reform the Egyptian state to deliver a better life for his people, despite the considerable external aid and peace. In any case, as an Arab leader, he was thirty or forty years (and counting) ahead of his contemporaries.

Lee Kuan Yew is a special case; his brilliance and vision are legendary and deserved. His focus on merit and excellence raised expectations across the board. Knitting a modern nation out of the slender threads he held in 1965 was an unexpected achievement. His vision and ethos has carried forward to subsequent generations of leadership and permeated the culture of Singapore. Yet at the end of the day, he was a glorified mayor of a medium-sized albeit multiethnic metropolis. As Deng Xiaoping noted when comparing the development of Singapore to China, “If I had only Shanghai, I too might be able to change Shanghai as quickly. But I have the whole of China”. (Vogel) Lee’s achievements also showed his missed opportunities: it would have been interesting to see if he could have effected a similar transformation of a larger entity, say all of Malaysia.

Lee’s repression and lack of personal freedoms might have been expedient, and certainly far less enlightened despots have used the same arguments while delivering far weaker results, but he took too long to loosen the constraints. By comparison, a contemporary, Chiang Ching Kuo of Taiwan, ROC, went against type and moved dramatically to create an alternative to an authoritarian, Communist China, for he understood the world would not support two authoritarian Chinas — but if there were a democratic one and an authoritarian one, there would be hope for a Taiwan. In Singapore, the use of Singapore’s Internal Security Act which allows arbitrary detention by the state, continued too long and for too many unnecessary cases (that of my uncle, Francis Seow, a stark case in point). Lee could have improved his greatness if he had combined his small notes of contrition with real actions to excise the use of such odious laws from the colonial period.

Kissinger’s thesis that great leadership in the latter half of the 20th century sprung from middle class values is noteworthy. Certainly these practitioners could better understand and more naturally reflect the societies they sought to transform. Great leaders envision a future that others cannot, perceive the processes of history that aid or abet their vision, and also know what their societies are capable of achieving. By triangulating these points of reference, they pull their people forward, into the future.


Kissinger, H. (2022). Leadership: Six Studies in World Strategy. S.L.: Penguin Books.

Kissinger, H. (1995). Diplomacy. New York ; London: Simon & Schuster.

Parker, G. (2023). “Michael Heseltine: ‘The adults are back in charge’”. Financial Times. [online] 17 Mar. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/cd91db6f-e9d6-45dc-b92f-404dc8f2724e [Accessed 18 Mar. 2023].

Vogel, E.F. (2011). Deng Xiaoping and the transformation of China. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The Belknap Press Of Harvard University Press.‌



Mark Looi

Entrepreneur, technologist, business strategist, history buff, photographer, with a diverse range of interests.