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They sowed wind and reaped a whirlwind: an inquiry into the origin and nature of “revanchist leadership”

Kees Klompenhouwer (Former Ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Hague, The Netherlands)
Nikol Hopman (Centre for Professional Learning, Faculty Governance and Global Affairs, Leiden University, The Hague, The Netherlands)

International Journal of Public Leadership

ISSN: 2056-4929

Article publication date: 14 October 2021

Issue publication date: 3 August 2022

149

Abstract

Purpose

It matters who leads. Answering the research question will help to achieve early recognition of revanchist leadership and its harmful effects and help to determine why it emerges and how it works and spreads. This article is to encourage further study of its widening presence and of the remedies.

Design/methodology/approach

Through two contemporary case studies, this article seeks a better understanding of “revanchist leadership” and identify its distinct and permanent properties (DNA) and the way it works (modus operandi). Thus, it will simultaneously demonstrate that revanchist leadership is not a uniquely historic but a recurring and contemporary phenomenon. Based on an analysis of both public leadership theory and leadership practice, the authors conceive of leadership as a multi-faceted concept, made of the following four components. First is leadership as a person, i.e. the personal characteristics, traits, style and skills of the individual leader. Second is leadership as the position, i.e. the work of leading people, with a focus on the formal role and responsibilities. Third is leadership as a process, i.e. the work of enabling leadership, with a focus on coordinating, facilitating and directing internal and external parties. And fourth is leadership as embodiment of a common purpose, i.e. the work of leadership serving the greater good, both as an individual and the collective. In addition to this so called “4-P model” (Hopman and van den Berg, 2015; Grint, 2010) of public leadership, it is important that in order to understand leadership, the psychological, political, institutional, historical and geographical contexts determine to a large extent the impact of leadership, but the authors assume that – ultimately – there remains an element of personal choice of options and opportunities available [1]. To answer the research question, the authors follow a case-based approach. The descriptions and analyses of the cases are not only based on literature but also informed by personal experience in diplomatic work in the area's mentioned. It is important to focus not only on the persons of the leaders but also on their followers, as well as the political, institutional and international context. As part of this analysis, (ab)use of institutions and the leading political-historical narratives that underpin revanchist policies are taken into account [2].

Findings

The case-based analysis shows a similarity of the two cases, although the two cases developed largely independently, with a time difference of about 20 years and under quite different historic and geographic conditions. This support the research hypothesis that revanchist leadership might be considered a distinct style of political leadership, with specific defining elements, a so called “DNA” and modus operandi of its own that emerges and grows gradually, when enabling historical and mass psychological contexts are present. The presence of such an enabling context might also serve as a warning indicator of risks (the analogy of a recurring political virus is tempting). The work of Kellerman on “bad leadership”, Lipman Blumen on “toxic leadership,” provides a useful conceptual framework to better understand, analyze and recognize revanchist leadership in two empirical cases. In part IV, the authors describe defining elements (a so-called “DNA”) of revanchist leadership and the risk of revanchist leadership to spread like a “political virus”. The authors conclude with the recommendation that revanchist leadership and its defining feature (“DNA”) be further researched, in order to be better able to recognize revanchist leadership at an early stage and to facilitate a structured assessment of the extent, this type of leadership is present today and by implication represent a threat to peace and security of other nations. This is relevant as the current times are characterized by uncertainty, heightened anxiety and increased tensions among nations as well as at times frightened populations, which form a fertile ground for the growth of revanchist leadership, as history teaches us.

Research limitations/implications

The authors conclude with the recommendation that revanchist leadership and its defining feature (“DNA”) be further researched, in order to be better able to recognize revanchist leadership at an early stage and to facilitate a structured assessment of the extent, this type of leadership is present today and by implication represent a threat to peace and security of other nations. As a counterpoint the concept of “Partnership in Leadership” is introduced, as a remedial approach that deserves further attention.

Practical implications

It first demonstrates that this specific type of leadership, although unethical and harmful, can be effective in the short term from the point of view of the revanchist leader's intent, despite high human costs. Second – paradoxical as it may sound – the primary drive of the revanchist leader is not external (the object of the revanche) but internal (the determination to obtain and maintain internal power at all costs). Both factors make this style an attractive option for other public leaders, in a context of increased uncertainty.

Social implications

Better understanding should help to remedy the threat posed by revanchist leadership to international peace and security. The authors will briefly discuss the – important but incomplete – countermeasures of the international community in the two cases. As a counterpoint the concept of “Partnership in Leadership” is introduced, as a remedial approach that deserves further attention.

Originality/value

It first demonstrates that this specific type of leadership, although unethical and harmful, can be effective in the short term from the point of view of the revanchist leader's intent, despite high human costs. Second – paradoxical as it may sound – the primary drive of the revanchist leader is not external (the object of the revanche) but internal (the determination to obtain and maintain internal power at all costs). Both factors make this style an attractive option for other public leaders, in a context of increased uncertainty. The instrumentalization of uncertainty described in the two cases in this stud, may serve as a warning of the existence of dangers of revanchist leadership today. The uncertainty born out of accelerating globalization, job and income insecurity and destabilizing demographic trends, the challenges of a multicultural society, has incentivized some public leaders in Europe and elsewhere to fan the flames of anxiety to justify autocratic and revanchist leadership styles, ignore agreed international rules and norms and prioritize geopolitical competition over cooperation. They set the sights of the nation on a glorious and powerful past as compass for the future. Several add to that revanchist claims of spheres of influence in neighboring countries. Better understanding should help to remedy the threat posed by revanchist leadership to international peace and security. The authors will briefly discuss the – important but incomplete – countermeasures of the international community in the two cases. As a counterpoint the concept of “Partnership in Leadership” is introduced, as a remedial approach that deserves further attention.

Keywords

Citation

Klompenhouwer, K. and Hopman, N. (2022), "They sowed wind and reaped a whirlwind: an inquiry into the origin and nature of “revanchist leadership”", International Journal of Public Leadership, Vol. 18 No. 3, pp. 242-263. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJPL-02-2021-0006

Publisher

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Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2021, Emerald Publishing Limited

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