Saturday, December 20, 2008

Legitimacy and Leadership

The key point from this last week in relation to the history we’ve been studying has to do with the concept of legitimacy. Legitimacy in governing is key to how a government runs effectively; the less legitimate citizens feel their government is, the less abilities that government has in ruling. A leader can never rule effectively if he is considered illegitimate.

For much of world history, especially before 1700, legitimacy was determined by the mention of a higher power. If a leader could convince the people that the higher power was in his corner, he was considered legitimate. James I in England took that a step further: he felt that he (as king) was really no different than God. No one could question his power, as he had the connection to God. In a way, he argued that kings had the hotline to God and as such, their decisions were always correct. Of course, today we in this country could never imagine a president who would claim that God speaks to him, right?

The Divine Right of Kings in Europe took the concept of legitimacy pretty far. Inevitably, there was a reaction by the people. When someone claims to have spoken to God, it isn’t long before others start to wonder why God hasn’t spoken to them. This begins the questioning of government in general. In England, that took the form of John Locke’s Of Civil Government. This threw the whole concept of legitimacy on its ear. According to Locke, God was no longer an acceptable way for rulers to claim legitimacy. Locke argued that legitimacy only came from the consent of the people. At least for Europe, this was the beginning of the movement towards democracy. If one admits that government only comes from the consent of the people, it won’t be long before they realize that “consent” usually must come in the form of a vote.

This represents a fundamental change in the conversation regarding the history of government and leadership. To lead, a person now has to consider the collective power of the people to put him/her into the role of leader and thus their collective power to remove him/her. Leadership from this point forward becomes much more complicated for those in power, but much more fair for those under that power.


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