An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Summer 2016

Leadership, Equality & Democracy

Nannerl Overholser Keohane
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The goal of this essay is to clarify the relationship between leadership and equality as two essential constitutive factors of a democratic political system. The essay is motivated by concern about increasing inequalities in the political system of the United States and other countries that describe themselves as democracies. The first section notes the logical tension between leadership and equality, and spells out my understanding of the key terms I use in this essay. I show how the tension between leadership and equality poses a conundrum for democratic governance. Yet the crux of my argument is that profound socioeconomic inequalities pose the more basic threat. I identify disparities in power, as distinct from leadership, as the root of the problem here.

Leadership and power are often conflated. Eliding the differences between the two impedes our understanding of the dilemmas we face. The classical answer to concerns about the abuse of power is to establish institutional constraints on political leadership. Yet good leadership is essential in solving the problems we confront. Because leaders can take significant steps to reduce inequality, leadership and equality are not always in tension. If we are to emerge from our current malaise, we must recognize and draw upon the positive contributions of leadership to efficacious democratic governance.

NANNERL O. KEOHANE, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1991, is a political philosopher and university administrator who served as president of Wellesley College and Duke University. She has taught at Swarthmore College and Stanford, Duke, and Princeton Universities. Her books include Philosophy and the State in France: the Renaissance to the Enlightenment (1980), Higher Ground: Ethics and Leadership in the Modern University (2006), and Thinking about Leadership (2010). She is a member of the Harvard Corporation, and serves on the Board of Trustees of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation and the Board of Directors of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.