When Bad Leadership Works

As we face up to the prospect of the US withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, some strange and hitherto hard to imagine things are happening. China and Europe, long on opposite sides of these discussions are teaming up to take world leadership in case of an American withdrawal. Western European countries are likely to raise their defense spending after decades as US backed NATO security looks less certain than before.

On a wide range of issues where the US has traditionally been the trend setter, people are looking at other centers of power and direction. Proponents of internationalism and liberalism have had to shake off complacency and look beyond their comfort zone.

There are some historic examples where in the long run, bad leadership has proved more useful than good.

The most readily remembered example is of King John (of Robin Hood notoriety) of England. After his elder brother Richard the Lionheart died in battle attacking a French castle in 1199, John the youngest of 7 children found himself on the throne.

King John

John combined cruelty, arrogance and incompetence. He imprisoned his former wife, starved his opponents to death and allegedly murdered his own nephew. He waged a series of wars in France and lost almost all of them. To pay for these adventures, he heavily taxed the aristocracy. Families that could not pay were stripped of their titles and lands.

The barons tried to negotiate, they insisted that John obey the law. When John refused, they revolted and captured London. John was forced to come to the neutral ground of Runnymede. There, furious negotiations were recorded by scribes. John was forced to put his seal to a charter of rights for aristocrats and all free men (free men were few in those days and did not include indentured peasants). This was the Grand Charter which has come to be known as Magna Carta.


Magna Carta

While the actual text of Magna Carta mostly dealt with rights and customs of medieval nobles, it’s most famous clause.

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled or deprived of his standing … except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land

The Magna Carta placed the law above everyone even a supposedly divinely appointed ruler.

Does this mean we can hope for something better to come out of our current crisis?

But the path of progress is seldom smooth and benefits often take a long time to be seen.

At John’s urging, the Pope rejected the agreement leading to a Civil War. Finally, John’s son had to re-issue Magna Carta to end it. Yet, despite all this, Magna Carta became part of English Law. It has since inspired Jefferson, Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Who knows where today’s decisions will take us?


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