LEADING ARTICLE: Where have all the great leaders gone?

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Last weekend the world lost a rarity: a great leader. Until the fatal shots were fired at Yitzhak Rabin, many people had not realised the true calibre of the late Israeli Prime Minister. This sombre figure, whose deep voice had punctuated the Middle East peace process, had somehow been taken for granted.

His value is now clear to one and all. King Hussein, three times Israel's foe in war, openly mourned the assassination of his former enemy. Yasser Arafat flew secretly and for the first time to Israel to visit Rabin's widow and pay homage to the fallen leader. Yitzhak Rabin's character is worth dwelling upon. Greatness is not a word to be used lightly in the context of political leadership, but Rabin clearly had that quality. His death raises the question: what makes a great leader?

Rabin's first quality was that, like De Gaulle - the 25th anniversary of whose death was commemorated last Thursday - he expressed virtues particular to his nation: in this case toughness and intransigence. And Rabin, like De Gaulle - when he settled the Algerian problem - had the imagination to recognise the need to change direction and lead his countrymen on a fresh path.

What chiefly separated Rabin from most contemporaries was that he had a star by which to steer. George Bush, bemused by modern invention, called it the "vision thing". But political single-mindedness is an old virtue: when Cato's Rome determined to destroy Carthage, it exemplified the need for clear resolve.

Rabin's star was consolidation of the Israeli state. He demonstrated remarkable powers of adaptability by changing strategy in pursuit of this aim. In the Sixties and Seventies, his goal was military effectiveness. By the Nineties, his task was very different, the recognition that Israel's strategic interest lay in a historic rapprochement with her neighbours.

Look around senior figures on the world stage, you will not find many examples of such transformational leadership. Jacques Chirac would like to be the new De Gaulle, to put the fire back into France. But here is an example of a leader who lives in the past rather than recognising the need for France to redefine itself for the future. His determination to persist with nuclear testing is a classic example of what might be described as vacuous Gaullism.

In the United States, Bill Clinton presides over a forgettable presidency that lacks substance. The man who had the best chance of replacing him, General Colin Powell, declined to enter the ring this week. General Powell had an impressive record of military leadership behind him. And, in a political culture based on veto power, he had the asset of offending few people. He even had a touch of Nelson Mandela for those who crave a figure capable of uniting a fragmented nation. But General Powell never pretended to have a clear vision of what he would do if he took over the White House. His failure to stand will not shake the world.

John Major has some important leadership qualities. He personifies particularly British virtues: decency, common sense and coolness in a crisis. He is something of a team builder. Unlike his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, he has not destroyed rivals but kept the best of them in his cabinet. Yet his managerialism has not turned into leadership capable of properly uniting his party, the country or establishing a clear sense of direction.

Tony Blair has learnt from some of his opponent's mistakes. He has been to the charm school. The steel in his character has also glinted as he has been turning his party's identity inside out. But, while doing the easy bit of uniting his party around winning the next election, he has yet to adumbrate a convincing strategy for the country, let alone forge a national consensus around it.

So why are we so bereft of great leaders? One reason is that old forms of training have disappeared with peace. Simply living through two world wars and doing military service helped to forge leadership qualities in many 20th-century politicians. Macmillan, Churchill, De Gaulle, Adenauer and Attlee all graduated from wars. They were schooled in a period of great historical change. They learnt that change is not an incremental process but one that can be unpredictable, profound and nerve-wracking. Great turning points in the life of a nation tend to produce great leaders. For most Western nations that is not the modern condition. Change is incremental. What is more, politicians have simply become less important in the life of a nation.

Yet leaders still matter. There are difficult times ahead in the new century. We need figures capable of galvanising the public to accept unpleasant, difficult policies. They will not be coerced by authoritarian means: the rise of individualism rules that out. Politicians will succeed by identifying a goal and, acting as catalysts, inspiring commitment to it. As John Buchan said, the task of leadership is not to put greatness into people but to draw it out.

Nelson Mandela is probably the only great political leader in the world today. As John Adair, Britain's first Professor of Leadership Studies at Exeter University, has observed, Mr Mandela's style is less arrogant and lower profile than his contemporaries. That brings trust, respect and loyalty. His enthusiasm, despite his age, is infectious. And Mr Mandela's time in prison convinces his countrymen that he knows all about the hardship and dangers that confront the nation. So he has the moral authority and capacity to persuade others to make sacrifices.

Events this week show how even decent John Major has yet to learn the rudiments of modern political leadership. By failing to back Lord Nolan's call for MPs to disclose all earnings derived from their parliamentary work, Mr Major sided with a discredited, defensive establishment instead of with the public. If MPs will not even tell us where they get their money, how can they expect respect for their authority?

Nelson Mandela recently said: "I am not a leader. I am a servant." In this humility lies his power. Mr Mandela's contemporaries would do well to watch him and learn.