Leaders or footnotes

I recently asked the former prime minister of a Northern European country whether he allowed concerns about his legacy to get in the way of crucial political decisions.

“No, not at all,” he said. “Because if you start thinking about your legacy, you are finished.”

I was thinking about his response later on and was led to the conclusion that he might be right but only if you choose to see things from the perspective of a leader in charge of a dull, predictable state during normal times.

If you choose to see it from the perspective of the leader of an unpredictable, crazy country in deep crisis, then the legacy factor must naturally play a key role.

For better or worse, the debt crisis is taking a hefty toll on the domestic political system and its representatives. The phenomenon is not exclusive to Greece and it can be observed in other European nations.

Whoever was in power in Greece 10 years ago was basically a first-class passenger in a train with a set destination and a fixed arrival time. That is in stark contrast with today. If you are governing this country today, you cannot be sure about anything. In fact the accident can be just around the corner.

Under the current circumstances a person’s legacy clearly plays a role. On the occasion of the launch of a series of books on Greek leaders by Kathimerini, I started thinking, for instance, why we included Ioannis Kapodistrias rather than Petrobey Mavromichalis and Charilaos Trikoupis as opposed to Theodoros Deligiannis. The reasons are obvious. Deligiannis was popular during his time and always went with the flow. But he did not leave behind the kind of legacy that Trikoupis did, a politician who tried to modernize his country, failed, but nevertheless stood his ground as time went by, and in the face of history. The same goes for Kapodistrias. He was not worshipped by the people and would not have necessarily won the period’s opinion polls. He was glorified by history and the collective national psyche, however, because he attempted to place the modern Greek state into a proper framework, against the will of its undisciplined people.

When the going gets tough, when difficult decisions must be made, legacy does and must play a key role. There are many examples of leaders who survived particularly crucial situations because they succeeded in persuading citizens to fight for something worthwhile, even at the risk of political suicide.

The dilemma faced by the leaders of the great European crisis is whether they will enter history as a footnote or as the kind of leaders who kept their countries on their feet, leading them forward as much as possible.

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