Kellogg School of Management associate professor of management and strategy Ben Jones recently shared his insights on national leaders and economic growth with Kellogg students at a special lecture.
Jones, whose research includes considerations of economic growth, technology and innovation, and development economics, presented opposing views of the importance of leaders for their countries.
Jones began by offering a quote from writer Leo Tolstoy who, like Karl Marx and many others, claimed that individual leaders are unimportant. This perspective, Jones said, likens social and economic changes to an elephant tromping through the forest; leaders are like the ants riding atop the elephant who may claim to be in charge of the elephant’s direction, but shouldn’t be taken seriously. This view, he noted, has been held widely throughout most of the 20th century.
By contrast, the “great man” theory of history, which predates Tolstoy’s opinion and traces its origins to historians such as Thomas Carlyle, states that the individual not only matters but is the essential piece in understanding the evolution of events. In this view, the last century can only be understood through the biographies of people such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Mao Zedong.
The question, then, is which view of leadership is correct? Or, is the truth somewhere in between?
Jones has co-authored two papers exploring this idea, both of which served as the basis for his discussion with the Kellogg audience. The first paper, Do Leaders Matter? National Leadership and Growth Since World War II, published in the August 2005 Quarterly Journal of Economics, examines a shift in a country’s growth rates following a leader’s death. His research concludes that individual leaders can play crucial roles in shaping the growth of nations.
“The results suggest that the effects of individual leaders are large, but only in autocratic settings where there are fewer constraints on a leader’s power,” Jones said.
Jones’ more recent paper, Hit or Miss? The Effect of Assassinations on Institutions and War, released in February through the National Bureau of Economic Research, examines more closely what happens when a leader is assassinated. Jones and his co-author on both papers, Ben Olken, a junior fellow with the Society of Fellows at Harvard University, conducted their research based on assassination attempts on all world leaders between 1875 and 2004.
“We find that, on average, successful assassinations of autocrats produce sustained moves towards democracy,” Jones said. In addition, assassinations can affect the intensity of small-scale military conflicts.
According to Jones’ research, leaders do matter, and they can have large impacts on economic growth, social policies, and more—a point to remember as the recent leadership circumstances in Cuba and Zimbabwe continue to unfold, and as the US embarks upon a national election this year.
“These questions of individual leadership qualities are not small or incidental, but apparently central to understanding history on very important dimensions,” Jones says. “It appears critical to focus on how we choose leaders, how we can incentivize the right leaders to seek office and the wrong ones to stay home.”
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Adrienne Murrill is a staff writer at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
For more information about Ben Jones’ research on leadership, read Do Leaders Matter? The sudden death of a president can trigger sweeping, unexpected changes in a nation’s economy in Kellogg Insight , the Kellogg School’s research portal. The URL to this story is available at: insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/index.php/Kellogg/article/do_leaders_matter.