Yves Cohen, Le siècle des chefs: Une histoire transnationale du commandement et de l’autorité (1890-1940) (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2013). 872 pp. € 25.00 (paperback). I should like to thank Camille Fauroux for first pointing out this book to me, Willemijn Ruberg for her encouragement, the anonymous reviewer for some useful comments, Mark B. Smith for advice on the transcription of Russian terms and William Gould for his briefing on Gandhi.


The relationship between individuality and social organisation was among the key issues preoccupying social thought in the decades around 1900. Max Weber, along with other liberal thinkers, feared that the incessant growth of bureaucracy would eventually render individuals irrelevant, consigning them to the “shell as hard as steel” created by rationalisation.1 By contrast, Émile Durkheim, himself an impeccable French Republican, joined a chorus of conservative voices in worrying about the spread of individualism and the concomitant threat of social disintegration.2 Both concerns informed not just Kulturkritik and emerging sociological theory but also contemporary managerial discourse and political culture. How could companies reconcile their increasing size and internal bureaucracy with the need for personal decision and responsibility? How could politicians remain recognisable as individuals, in spite of the growing importance of party apparatuses and professional campaigning, and give complex societies purpose and direction? These questions motivated a myriad intellectual and practical answers and only gained in urgency under the impetus of the First World War as well as of the rise of the United States, the Soviet Union and the fascist dictatorships in the two subsequent decades.

The widespread search for leadership in modern times has, of course, not gone unnoticed by political, intellectual, cultural and business historians. Political leadership has been treated in transnational perspective, as in the veteran political scientist Archie Brown’s recent blend of systematic comparison and historical analysis,3 but there have hitherto been few attempts to explore the topic beyond the confines of different subdisciplines. Historians of the twentieth century should thus take note of Yves Cohen’s intellectually ambitious, methodologically versatile, geographically broad and extensively researched study of this crucial subject. Cohen is almost uniquely qualified for such a demanding task. While his early work was on business organisation in early twentieth-century France,4 he has since turned to Soviet history, with an emphasis on the era of Stalinism.5 In Le siècle des chefs, he complements this rare Franco-Soviet expertise by including entire sections on Germany and the United States. As one would expect from a historian based at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, Cohen is theoretically aware – in his case less in the sense of applying a specific body of thought to a historical context than in reflecting conceptually throughout the book. His weighty tome is therefore not merely a contribution to the historiography of leadership in the early decades of the twentieth century but also evidence of the continuing importance of French thought for the study of modernity more generally.

Yves Cohen on Leadership, 1890-1940

Between 1890 and 1940, authors as different as Gustave Le Bon, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and Charles De Gaulle saw a pressing “need for a chef”, as the book’s preliminary chapter explains. While the diagnosis was remarkably similar, the notions themselves differed. The German Führung united notions of leadership and management that were mostly kept separate in the United States. Both highlighted the ability to motivate and steer others, as did the Russian rukovodstvo, whereas the French commandement evokes formally defined titles and positions. Consequently, the role and behaviour of persons within organisations were discussed under the heading of l’autorité personelle, in contrast to the frequent American insistence that leadership and authority were different realms. However, to Cohen such semantic differences matter less than the common preoccupation with the role of persons and personalities in an age that is often misleadingly identified with impersonal rationalisation (pp. 54-56).

In foregrounding “la culture du leadership et de la figure du chef” in the first part of his book, Cohen stresses underlying commonalities, which, he argues, are easily obscured by the fixation on the fascist and communist dictatorships’ respective leadership cults. In all four countries, the decline of older hierarchies and the inclusion of ever greater numbers of people into industrial enterprises, the armed forces and national polities inspired fresh, cross-disciplinary thinking about social organisation. Military writers such as Hubert Lyautey pointed out that, in future wars, the old-style blend of formal qualifications and punitive measures would no longer suffice to mobilise and steer troops. Their interest in the personality factor overlapped with the preoccupations of early psychologists and management theorists, all of whom aspired to be “scientific” while engaging and interacting with social practice. They discussed the role and behaviour of leaders in conjunction with new forms of discipline, especially where the organisation of factories was concerned, and with the gouvernementalité (Michel Foucault) of stimulating and “caring for” the workforce or even entire populations. Notions such as “suggestion”, “influence” or “magnetism”, the latter especially cherished by Stalin, served to characterise the personal qualities deemed necessary to hold crowds and groups together. In an age of industrial rationalisation and mass participation, democracies and dictatorships alike searched for a new, more persuasive and efficient elite as well as for leadership at the intermediate level of lieutenants or engineers.

In spite of these commonalities, the quest for leadership responded to different challenges, depending on the respective national and political contexts. In Germany, the discussion centred on the figure of the political Führer. This created a yardstick against which Wilhelm II himself was measured (with considerable initial hopes but ultimately disappointing results) and that, in spite of Max Weber’s hopes for a democratic Führertum, subsequently undermined the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic and its protagonists. Companies foregrounded Menschenführung, in order to compensate for the depersonalising effects of rationalisation and counter the growing influence of the trade unions. While the debate on leadership was politically broad, the trend to link Führer and Volk and contrast both with the principles of democratic selection and the rule of law greatly contributed to the rise of Adolf Hitler. It subsequently lay at the centre of Nazism as a political and social practice, promising opportunities for Führertum to any “Aryan” who demonstrated personal initiative and performance.

The Bolsheviks also profited from a perceived lack of leadership, a staple of political discourse in late Tsarist Russia. Starting with Lenin’s pamphlet What Is To Be Done (1902), they even defined themselves as professional leaders (vozhdia) directing the labouring masses towards revolution. What was absent was any theoretical justification of why the revolution should be led by a single person. Hence the official denial that a personality cult existed and the rather twisted rhetoric accompanying Stalin’s ascent to power. But the scope of leadership (rukovodstvo) was much broader, especially during the 1930s, at the time of forcible industrialisation and agrarian collectivisation. Frequent and decisive personal intervention was expected of party officials and company directors. Any setbacks were blamed on the failure or corruption of leadership, mostly due to residual bureaucratic or, worse, bourgeois attitudes. The Great Terror thus ushered in a new generation of leaders who had come of age in Soviet times. And it reinforced the cult around Stalin, which united different logics ranging from the highest party circles to cultural professionals to many ordinary Russians with their vernacular desires for veneration. The incessant emphasis on leadership was, Cohen argues, not merely symbolic but became part and parcel of political and social practice in the Soviet Union.

The French preoccupation with commandement and autorité stood out for the importance of military perspectives as well as the inspiration provided by the emerging discipline of social psychology. Majority opinion held that the rôle social of officers in a conscript army and under the conditions of technological warfare depended on personal qualities such as the ability to take and foster initiative. Analogously, engineers in factories were ascribed a social and moral as well as a technical and professional role, necessitating self-control in order to lead by example. Military and business writers responded to increasing democratic pressures, as did Gustave Le Bon in his seminal Psychologie des foules (1895). According to Le Bon, crowds could be steered by politicians who understood their irrational, essentially feminine psychology and who possessed suggestive capacities. This thinking inspired industrialists and managerial writers to reflect on what constituted a chef. At the same time, their views formed against the backdrop of actual contention, as during strikes at Eugène Schneider’s armament factory in Le Creusot in 1899, which prompted a blend between reassertion of entrepreneurial sovereignty, a heightened emphasis on personal interaction with workers, and new, pre-Taylorist forms of social control.

The First World War and its conflict-ridden aftermath triggered further reflection, which ranged from a homosocial emphasis on reciprocal love between leaders and their subordinates to a more systematic approach stressing overview, coordination and decision-making. Factory engineers were advised to know their staff while steering them through surveillance, material incentives, sanctions and clear orders, as well as by conveying a sense of constant personal presence. The search for the grand chef, modelled on the wartime general Ferdinand Foch or the industrialist Louis Renault, counterbalanced a parallel trend toward encouraging men from all walks of life to uncover and cultivate their own leadership capacity. Industrialists reinforced previous efforts at systematic leadership training as a reaction to the strikes under the Popular Front in 1936. The late Third Republic was thus characterised by an interplay between further democratisation and new forms of reasserting vertical authority.

The American discourse searched for empirical psychological knowledge almost from the outset, inspired by the French author Alfred Binet’s emphasis on suggestibilité but focusing on the profile of leaders rather than the emotional outlook of their followers. Group experiments with pupils reinforced prevailing assumptions about “natural” qualities and hierarchies. The relevant publications, predictably emanating from Ivy League universities, blended (white, Protestant and male) elitism with the democratic promise of mobility. They held that American leaders distinguished themselves from monarchs or dictators by being attentive to the views and needs of the majority while simultaneously offering an alternative to the weak democracies of interwar Europe. This basic theme proved attractive to proponents of “scientific management”, who used it to defend themselves against the charge of impersonal rationalisation, as well as to educational researchers, who shifted the emphasis from youthful leaders’ “natural” to their acquired, and thus trainable, qualities. It was also taken up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who communicated his insights to a popular audience through the radio while also reassuring the elite from which he originated. Roosevelt’s reliance on a circle of advisors underscores that, more than elsewhere, leadership in the United States was understood as embedded in complex social relations.

Having offered an extensive tableau and analysis of the discourses on leadership, Cohen moves on to explore “les chefs en action” in the second part of his book. His focus is on the operational practices of French and Soviet factory directors – as well as those of Stalin – during the 1930s, including the status of plans, the relationship between presence and distance, and the respective roles of oral and written communication. Drawing on aforementioned discourses, the chefs under study acted as “guides of action”. They defined objectives, anticipated obstacles, stimulated or stifled the activity of others, maintained a credible personal presence within large-scale organisations and/or across vast territories, asserted themselves against subordinates as well as other leaders, and – certainly in Stalin’s case – imposed their vertical authority through carefully dosed written interventions. Hence, Cohen’s broader claim behind what one might label a historical microsociology of leadership is that these practices responded to some of the twentieth century’s key challenges and, conversely, contributed to shaping it.

Ernest Mattern, director of factories and technical services at the car manufacturer Peugeot from 1928, exemplifies planning. Benefitting from strong leadership credentials from a previous stint with the same company and supported by the Peugeot family, Mattern immediately introduced a massive reorganisation project, followed by a series of implementation plans. While he did consult with factory directors, he managed to identify what was essentially a Fordist drive for productivity gains with him own agenda, personally providing it with unity and cohesion. Designing and writing the plan constituted an action and at the same time established a programme for, and justification of, future actions. Mattern possessed the authority to define objectives as well as the capacity to anticipate difficulties and understand circumstances on the ground. Hence he was in a position to present any subsequent changes as mere adjustments and, when necessary, redefine the initial plan retrospectively. The symbiotic relationship between chef and plan at Peugeot amounted to a highly successful way of reducing and steering the complexity of a vast company. To bridge the spatial distance between his office and the factories, Mattern, like other contemporary directors, devised a system of regular reports, often in the shape of tables and graphs, and corresponded tirelessly. At the same time, he insisted on the importance of frequent visits to the shop floor in order to spot mistakes, solve problems and convey the plan’s latest adjustments. In this way, he sserted his personal authority while also enabling (limited) initiative on the part of his factory directors and engineers – an anti-bureaucratic approach whose unity he saw threatened by the telephone, arguing that it encouraged bypassing vertical communication channels.

The Putilov factories in Leningrad did not possess a director with anywhere near the power that Ernest Mattern was able to exert at Peugeot. What is interesting about them is the debates on what constituted effective leadership that were held and minuted between 1929 and 1931, after the first five-year plan. Even by Stalinist standards, the sole producer of tractors at the time of agrarian collectivisation came under severe pressure to increase output whatever the obstacles. This prompted an unusually open discussion of internal problems and conflicts, especially the thorny relations between the heads of the different workshops on the one hand and the functionaries of the party organisations and administrative departments on the other. The former demanded greater autonomy in their respective realms in order to control and retain a transient workforce, against the restrictions on wages imposed by the intensely despised Office of Technical Norms. These intermediate leaders thus insisted on their role in negotiating between the previsions of the plan and the circumstances they grappled with on the ground. When the Putilov factories attracted critical attention from on high, including from Stalin himself, for failing to meet the targets, accusations abounded. The head of the Office of Technical Norms was taken to task for a lack of personal presence and direct communication. Since neither the “scientific” planning of the economy nor the “enthusiastic” workers could be at fault, any difficulties needed to be blamed on bad leadership.

What of the supreme Vozhd’ with a capital V? Cohen offers a detailed analysis of how Joseph Stalin developed his own leadership style, which amounted to inextricable and highly personalised links between control, repression and the political agenda.6 His preferred method consisted of conveying a sense of his own presence through frequent written interventions, both letters and standardised forms only requiring his signature. Stalin thus related the respective policies to Marxist theory, concentrated the actions of regional authorities on specific targets (chiefly the kulaks), secured a constant flow of information between centre and periphery, conveyed his own emotional state and issued thinly veiled threats to the recalcitrant, lukewarm or overly bureaucratic. He thus replaced any horizontal collectivities by a direct vertical hierarchy, held together through disciplinary power, a set of communicative practices and technical means such as the telephone. This system of personal rule enabled Stalin to instigate and steer the massive drive for agrarian collectivisation and anti-kulak repression in spite of massive famines. It was also at the heart of the Great Terror of 1937/38, which he fuelled by constantly requesting critical, i.e. denunciatory, reports from below, hereby tying communist subjectivities to his murderous project.

Even an extensive summary cannot do full justice to Cohen’s breadth of research and depth of interpretation. However, some conceptual points he makes along the way need mentioning. One concerns the notion of charismatic leadership, first developed in Max Weber’s sociology of rule and still widely used, especially by historians in Germany.7 Rather than adopting it for analytical purposes, Cohen advocates historicisation. He points out that Weber’s reflections on leadership, not unlike those of some of his French or American contemporaries, were part of his search for a political role for the individual as a counterweight to the emerging parliamentary system (pp. 21, 105, 130-135). Cohen’s constant attention to the multi-facetedness of leadership discourses and practices is more congenial to another concept, namely that of gouvernmentalité as proposed by Michel Foucault. Endeavouring to understand the revival of liberalism in the 1970s, the French thinker foregrounded the emergence of dispositifs, ensembles of discourses, institutions and measures geared towards large-scale behavioural change with the manufactured consent of the governed.8 Cohen reviews the definition and exertion of leadership against the backdrop of these dispositifs, but still regards it as a separate domain, one marked by hierarchical discipline alongside persuasive governance (pp. 15-16, 721-722, 812).9 A further important aspect is gender. It is obvious throughout the book how strongly “leaders”, Führer or chefs were associated with notions of masculinity, especially with regard to qualities such as rationality, decisiveness and “natural” authority. Cohen stresses this repeatedly, while also discussing how the American author Mary Follett advocated a more group-based approach to leadership that could have subverted male predominance, or how the emergence of company-based social services offered some French women opportunities to lead other women (pp. 94, 276-277).

Leadership in a Contingent World

What kind of broader reflection might Le siècle des chefs stimulate, beyond the many specific issues that warrant elaboration and debate? The crucial question is whether or not there are alternative approaches to the history of leadership between the late nineteenth century and the Second World War. Cohen’s focus, admirably broad though it is, reflects one of several possible choices, even though this is not made explicit. His study foregrounds scientific discourses and highly structured organisations, both of which aimed at minimising contingency. In many ways, this is a logical outcome of choosing France, the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Among the authors Cohen includes, some Americans conceived of leadership as being situational and dependent on the contributions of others, while the talented but then little-known officer Charles de Gaulle stressed that the chef of a military unit needed to master a contingent reality (pp. 372-373, 296). But at the centre of his sections on discourses are psychologists and management theorists, whose ambition was to acquire certainty about the features and roles of, respectively, effective leaders and their loyal followers. Analogously, the chief protagonists of the sections on practices, Eugène Mattern and Joseph Stalin, appear as strikingly efficient “control freaks” operating within enormous apparatuses that they themselves had decisively shaped.10 The fascinating account of Stalin’s communicative style, for that matter, could be complemented by studies that highlight how the Soviet dictator created states of emergency, invented putative conspiracies, and enjoyed others’ emotional uncertainty and physical suffering.11

Beyond such specific points, this emphasis has a broader conceptual and historical significance. Leaders who, like the military chefs envisioned by De Gaulle, possessed a knack for seeing and seizing opportunities in unforeseeable circumstances remain outside of Cohen’s focus. Revolutionary leaders, to cite one obvious example, might have had major organisational efforts to their credit, but their paramount contribution lay in spearheading the overthrow of previous governments, shifting political allegiances and ushering in a transformation of deeply ingrained structures.12 Moreover, it might be worth pondering the implications of Cohen’s – perfectly legitimate – concentration on Europe and the United States. A brief side glance at, for instance, Asia would bring out how anti-colonialist leaders placed themselves outside colonial structures, reconnected with (often invented) traditions and strove to create alternative moral and political worlds. Their own itineraries were designed to epitomise these alternative worlds, most prominently in the case of Mahatma Gandhi with his continuous emphasis on spiritual and bodily authenticity in conjunction with all-Indian unity and protest against British rule. As one study puts it, “it is perhaps not an exaggeration to claim that Gandhi’s fasts became synonymous with his style of leadership”.13 While the Vietnamese Communists’ emphasis on party organisation in the manner of Lenin was obviously very different from Gandhi’s politics, they too stressed personal sacrifice and bodily experience, chiefly in conjunction with imprisonment. This highlighted the violent injustice of French rule, boosted the heroic reputation of current or former inmates and legitimised their claims to leadership positions – so much so that Ho Chi Minh, who lacked a similarly impressive record, felt compelled to publish a diary of his stint as a Chinese warlord’s captive in 1942.14

Even within the confines of European political history it would be possible to tell a rather different story of leadership from that presented by Cohen. As stated at the outset of these reflections, the advent of the twentieth century triggered new concerns about an impersonal, rationalised and technology-driven modernity. The discourses and practices that Cohen describes responded to these concerns. They reasserted the role of the outstanding individual while at the same time subjecting it to rationalisation, as suggested by the need to identify and train leaders suitable for heading large-scale organisations. However, there was another strand in the history of leadership, one based on a view of modernity as a barely controllable juggernaut, dominated by short-term shifts and radical ruptures. Rather than inspiring universal fear, such a view also held great fascination, not least because it promised to narrow the gap between the leader and the adventurer. The latter had increasingly appeared a figure of the past, a heroically masculine character in nostalgic tales about a world not yet divided up, bureaucratically controlled and gender-neutral.15 But the drastically transformed political, social and cultural landscape in large parts of post-First World War Europe opened up opportunities for adventurous outsiders to become political leaders. The longing for such figures had been present before 1914, especially in Germany and Italy, but it had been frustrated by personal shortcomings and, more important, complex political systems and media dynamics.16 Now, however, the world seemed ripe for new protagonists, men who did not deplore uncertainty but thrived on it, exploiting or even ushering in the crises they subsequently purported to solve.17

The longing for leaders capable of simultaneously embracing and overcoming contingency was, of course, not universally shared, nor did it necessarily prompt contemporaries to endorse dictatorship rather than democracy. But it did become part and parcel of interwar political culture. The Weimar Republic, for instance, could have stabilised and lasted, difficult circumstances notwithstanding. However, the limited latitude that even its most skillful representatives enjoyed was at odds with the widespread expectation of a Führer capable of radical and surprising action.18 In other countries, decisiveness in unprecedented situations and full-blown crises was claimed by leaders who continued to operate within a democratic framework. Thus, Hendrik Colijn, prime minister of the Netherlands between 1933 and 1939, made much of his military past in the colonial East Indies while also styling himself as a reassuringly conservative politician steering the ship of his country through the heavy winds of economic depression.19 As French prime minister in 1938/39, the long-standing Radical Republican Édouard Daladier provoked and defeated a general strike and governed by decree in matters of defence, economic policy and immigration control.20 Both Colijn and Daladier transformed democratic leadership by adopting authoritarian images and methods, simultaneously reducing parliamentary influence and keeping the extreme right at bay.21

If democratic politicians of the interwar period proved better at mounting a defence against the dictatorial challenge than is often acknowledged,22 the power especially of the Nazi leadership model is not in doubt. Here too contingency was paramount. As recent biographies of some of the Third Reich’s most important protagonists have demonstrated, there was nothing pre-determined about their careers. They joined the Nazi movement when it had already begun or even when it was in full electoral swing. Equipped with a self-understanding as heroic fighters, albeit mostly without actual combat experience, they combined a knack for exploiting unprecedented and open situations with a talent for rapid institution-building. Unwilling to accept any boundaries to their self-realisation (save those set by Adolf Hitler), they established highly personal leadership styles that rested on activating their subordinates’ initiative while at the same time making them dependent. Expanding their own realm within the highly competitive environment of the Third Reich became tantamount to the definition, persecution and eventually murder of an ever broader range of “enemies”.23 It is thus worth supplementing the relevant section in Cohen’s book by considering how Führertum worked on a subjective and practical level. It was closely linked to the notion of the Volk, as he rightly stresses, but it also mediated between extreme-right ideology and a modern society with its bureaucratic and individualist aspects.24 This syncretistic character of Führertum was a major reason for Nazism’s capacity to mobilise towards inclusion and exclusion along racial lines, both within the German borders and, during the Second World War, across the Nazi Empire. At the same time, it helps to explain why so many former Nazis could assume leading positions in the Federal Republic with apparent ease – and why the former SS functionary Reinhard Höhn could make a second career out of promoting collaborative forms of Führung as part of “modern management”.25

The picture of leadership in the interwar period is thus even more diverse than that offered by Cohen, especially with regard to the tension between thriving on contingency and, in some cases simultaneously, reducing it by institutional means. This should also prompt us to think about the decades post 1939. It would be ungenerous to criticise a book with such a broad scope for not covering more ground, but it needs to be pointed out that, contrary to what the combined title and subtitle suggest, “le siècle des chefs” hardly ended in 1939. For instance, the comeback of Churchill and the rise of De Gaulle, political outsiders with military pasts and a talent for dangerously contingent situations, might be placed within the broader context of European societies facing the challenge of Nazi Germany. Moreover, one should consider complementing the brief connections Cohen draws to the “leaderless” post-1968 years. Particularly rewarding would be an analysis of what leadership meant in the 1950s, when unassuming politicians such as Willem Drees in the Netherlands or Antoine Pinay in France inspired trust and promised security.26 The 1960s and 1970s have been aptly labelled a period of “leadership without leaders”, with the Dutch prime minister Joop den Uyl or the West German chancellor Willy Brandt as cases in point.27 However, they also ushered in a renewed demand for decisive leaders, such as Brandt’s successor Helmut Schmidt, who boosted his popularity by fighting off a terrorist challenge in the autumn of 1977; Margaret Thatcher, who deliberately exacerbated social tensions and skillfully exploited the Argentinian invasion of the Falkland islands in order to demonstrate her resolve; or indeed Charles de Gaulle, who mastered the revolt of 1968 and has remained a powerful model ever since, a yardstick against which subsequent French presidents were bound to disappoint.

This critical excursion is by no means meant to detract from the strengths of Le siècle des chefs, which lie not merely in the book’s considerable intrinsic merit but also in its capacity to inspire further research and debate. While the focus here has been on a slightly different reading of the political history of twentieth-century Europe, future scholars of leadership should heed Cohen’s call for methodological and thematic versatility. Politicians, company directors and military officers alike strove, or were expected, to be leaders, and their qualities and roles were the object of psychological research, sociological reflection and media construction. Hence, notions that spanned different realms and fields should be historicised, as should the practices involved in heading large-scale companies, military units or polities. Beyond these historiographical challenges, we should reflect further on how to integrate the analysis of leadership into broader theories of modernity. Cohen’s findings and interpretations square with Anthony Giddens’s theory. According to Giddens social relations become, on the one hand, “dis-embedded”, i.e. more spatially distant and dependent on abstract systems, but are, on the other, “re-embedded” through trust in persons.28 In this vein, leadership appears as a counterweight to modernity’s deindividualising tendencies, something Max Weber already hoped for in the context of early twentieth-century Germany. However, an alternative reading might emphasise that modernity has been inextricably linked with contingency and crisis,29 a dimension that leaders have capitalised on and reinforced as much as reduced and compensated for.

Finally, like many important historical studies, Le siècle des chefs can stimulate reflection on our time. We are currently witnessing a proliferation of “leadership”, which is now expected even of traditionally bumbling academics or prospective entry-level police officers, who are encouraged “to recognise that leadership is about the role that you do, not the rank that you hold”.30 Consequently, leadership in democracies appears “dispersed” amidst a bewildering array of institutional constraints, popular expectations and media priorities.31 Yet, there is a continuing expectation that leaders be ubiquitous and decisive while also offering authenticity and identification (the latter fuelled by populist movements). Such expectations have recently led to widespread disappointment, both with the hyperprésident Nicolas Sarkozy and his emphatically “normal” successor François Hollande, with the charismatic figures Tony Blair and Barack Obama as well as with the rather diminutive Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann (the widely popular Angela Merkel with her knack for avoiding major decisions is a notable exception). The political scientist Stein Ringen’s admonition that democratic leaders need to be visionary and steady in equal measure in order to ensure that civil servants and citizens obey them is plausible enough, as is his colleague Archie Brown’s contention that presidents or prime ministers are successful not so much when they live up to what he calls the “myth of strong leadership”, but when they succeed in collaborating effectively with others.32 Then again, both are arguably at odds with the reality of media hypes and volatile electorates, which keep simultaneously calling for leaders and undermining them. What is clear is that leadership will continue to preoccupy the societies, cultures and polities we are a part of, and this should prompt us to follow Yves Cohen’s lead in thinking about it historically.

About the Author

Moritz Föllmer is Associate Professor of Modern History at the University of Amsterdam. His interests lie in the cultural history of twentieth-century Germany and Europe, with particular emphasis on individuality and on urban societies. Among his publications is Individuality and Modernity in Berlin: Self and Society from Weimar to the Wall (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013). Email: m.foellmer@uva.nl