New Delhi: The fall of Aleppo to the government forces of Bashar al-Assad aided by heavy Russian bombardment cannot have come at a worse time for Barack Obama in the concluding weeks of his presidency. There is an object lesson here for failed leadership which every world statesman and stateswoman must pause and consider and not least Donald Trump who will succeed Obama on 20th January.

Political leadership is about attaining and perfecting the correct and apposite balance. This is not much different from what life teaches you except that few truly imbibe the lessons of life. The failures of leadership in a democracy and in a dictatorship are not qualitatively very different but they can and mostly do produce vastly dissimilar outcomes. Jawaharlal Nehru was not deposed for the 1962 debacle although he broke the Indian spirit and himself died a broken man. On the other hand, the price of failure was unbearable even for Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Hitler could at least choose his death. Mussolini and his mistress were peremptorily hanged by the partisans.

By the unalike ways they are structured, democracy offers greater scope for leadership balance than a dictatorship ever could, although this does not necessarily make leadership balancing easier in a democracy. Competitive democratic politics often stresses the factors that enable leadership balancing. The men and women who have overcome these factors in the past and given balanced leadership would likely salute competitive politics in moments of quiet and introspection for making them eventual winners. The absence of sustained peer competition in a dictatorship may indeed be one reason why so few dictatorships have provided balanced leadership.

Balanced leadership in a democracy is determined by the placement and position of the elected leader in relation to the people. All popularly elected leaders, which is to say directly elected heads of government and heads of single-party governments, must assume a level of popular majority for themselves to reach their leadership position. The problem of leadership balance in a democracy is often seen to begin from here. It commences from a varied interpretation of popularity.

Leaders who are insecure about their popularity end up being trapped in popularity contests. Their decisions and more usually their non-decisions are guided by public opinion or their fearful perceptions of public opinion. Rather than ask what the correct and wise thing is to do, they instead worry and scare about public and media opinion. Barack Obama was never on top of foreign policy-making because he was averse to becoming an unpopular President. Since his predecessor in office had unthinkingly plunged the country into foreign wars and made himself unpopular with public opinion and the press, he would, he decided, go the opposite way and retrench the United States from as many external engagements as possible.

If Barack Obama had been conscious of the practical and moral necessity of leadership balance, he would have educated the American people about the inherent and inescapable responsibilities of the United States as a Great Power and as the sole surviving superpower. However awful and complex the Syrian civil war looked, the United States had to play a sensible role. Trusting to copybook diplomacy to the entire exclusion of the military option produced a vacuum in Syria which the Islamic State and the other jihadis exploited and which made it imperative for Russia to intervene on the side of Bashar al-Assad. This is not rocket science. Obama, nevertheless, did not see the future clearly because he was blinded by the US establishment’s vague, illogical and unthinking opposition to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Obama failed in the first test of leadership which is to possess and display distant vision which is denied to others and especially to the establishment, to public opinion, and to the media.

The balanced leader will put himself or herself in a position of balance with the people. It means the leader will be guided by the people in essentials like morality, traditional values, inherited cultures, constitutionality, and so forth, but will also stay ahead of public opinion when certain risky leadership decisions have to be taken. It is fascinating how Franklin Delano Roosevelt manoeuvred the staunchly isolationistic American people to war against the Fascist powers. The opposite example is furnished by Napoleon III after his solitary success in the Crimean War. He operated within the parameters set by public opinion rather like the politicians of today who judge the success of their policies by the instant adulation they receive (or do not receive) in television studios. Leadership is not a popularity and ratings contest.

At the same time, a leader cannot be too far ahead of public opinion: The physical laws of magnetism speak no differently. It pivots on the all-important principle of balance. A leader must never forget that he or she owes their office to the people. Equally, a leader must never erase from mind that he has been elected to lead. He cannot lead by remaining in the bubble of public opinion as Obama did. However unpopular it may seem at the time, the leader must have the courage to do the right thing, and employ every honourable means at his disposal to convince the people of his decision after the fact. If President Barack Obama had been a statesman on Syria, the outcomes would have been far less shocking and bloody. He chose to stay in the rear of public opinion. It is no wonder that he was left behind. Donald Trump would have to repair the damages to US foreign policy wrought by Barack Obama’s inertness. At the same time, Trump cannot lose his balance.

The lessons of Syria apply to the leaderships of all countries, including India. One 1962 is one too many.