The weighty issue of choosing a leader

By Frank-Jürgen Richter

Business Times, May 26, 2012

In this year of elections, the physical attributes of a candidate may be telling

AS Lewis Gantt said: “Each spring a gardening instinct, sure as the sap rising in the trees, stirs within us. We look about and decide to tame another little bit of ground.” So I began to muse a little, to indulge in whimsy, perhaps, and my mind turned to selecting the best candidates to lead our countries. This year, 2012, is the year of elections. Some say that by the time the year is over, as many as 80 will take place worldwide, CNN says 59. As there are about 193 nations, that represents about one-third of the globe.

Elections will be fraught exercises: the candidates will be stumping about trying to persuade followers to join them; populations will often be indifferent, while all the time the permanent establishment will endeavour to keep the machinery of state ticking over to maintain trade, cash flows and stability in the global markets. The nations involved represent about half the world´s GDP, so it is important for them to choose good leaders especially as many top changes affect the most powerful of nations.

Four out of the five UN Security Council members face (or have concluded) elections – Russia, China, France, and the US – in all about 40 per cent of the world’s GDP.

The Russian method is odd in so far as Vladimir Putin pre-announced he would be president but held elections. China, on the other hand, is not democratic, so will see not only the top two persons change (Xi Jinping to be President and Li Keqiang as Premier) but also some 200 or more other staff positions rotate in keeping with the new leaderships and their followers but without any involvement by the population.

It is estimated that 70 per cent of the Chinese leadership will be changed. All changes across the globe represent varying degrees of future uncertainty in how each new person faces his or her populace and other leaders.

In many of the democratic nations we see leaders succumbing to populist sentiment. This is not really an indication of the public desire, but of politicians wishing to draw votes.

President Obama will do this with a populist and hopeful reduction of the cost of car fuels as he releases US strategic oil stocks, ahead of his election trail. In general, populism is bad as uninformed people become over-stimulated by over-anxious politicians looking for a quick vote. Yet when Mr Obama said to leading bankers in March 2009 “my administration is the only thing between you and the pitchforks”, he was drawing back a little from joining the rabble, yet being strong enough to rattle the bankers Going back in history we find both Plato and Aristotle had reservations about democracy as a system of government precisely because it was susceptible to corruption by populist appeals to superstition and error.

To get around some of these unsavoury aspects of democracy, politicians often spout at length but vacuously. Famously, the American political scientist, Robert Axelrod analysed major political speeches and found that they were largely contentless, which leads me to doubt if we have the correct people to lead us merely because we have “popularly” voted for them.

And we have been persuaded of their worth as they spent millions along their election trails. Is there a better way? As we have more and more been persuaded in the West that we are becoming obese, my attention was drawn to the measure of a persons´ stature. Getting votes is one way, but calculating their Body Mass Index (BMI) is another way. The BMI is also an interestingly neutral way of noting if the people are looking after themselves – too thin and they may not have the strength to maintain the heavy presidential pressures, too fat and they may sustain heart attacks or other serious ailments.

Measuring BMI is cheap, and getting leaders with the correct BMI may be no worse than electing a leader based on populist misinformation gleaned through lurid TV talk-shows or inspired by counteractive innuendo against another candidate’s lifestyle; or by rigging votes, or by simply taking over leadership through a power move.

The BMI might also be a better indicator of longevity than hoping a leader will survive.

Such are the dreams of springtime when the new sap rises and the chill of winter disperses – yet we must also look to our summer and autumn.

Have we all that we need to sustain us through the next winter? Will we have the best leaders to greet 2013 and carry us forward? Meanwhile, I think I will go to weigh myself!

Frank-Jürgen Richter is founder and chairman of Horasis, a global business consultancy.