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‘Great leaders,’ says Oxford’s Margaret MacMillan, ‘have this innate ability to bring good people along with them.’Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

Rudyard Griffiths, chair of the Munk Debates, Canada's leading public-affairs forum, discusses issues and trends just over the horizon with renowned analysts and policy-makers. Oxford's Margaret MacMillan is an acclaimed author, historian and this year's Massey lecturer.

You think the lives and stories of individuals matter as much as the vast sweep of human history. Why?
They matter because they help us to connect with the past. If you read about millions of people doing this and millions of people doing that, history seems remote and inaccessible. Individual lives remind us that there is something called a common humanity, and that over the centuries there have been people who have lived and breathed, and sometimes worried about very different things and sometimes worried about the same things we do. Personally, I am also a shameless gossip. I've always loved reading diaries and memoirs, and just getting a sense of different personalities and what made them tick as individuals.

Tell us why you think hubris can help explain the fate of great men and women across time.
Hubris is interesting, because you get people who are often very clever, very powerful, have achieved great things, and then something goes wrong – they just don't know when to stop. And I think it's something that could happen to almost any of us. For example, if I was surrounded by people who told me the whole time that I was absolutely right, that I was brilliant, that I was always making the right decisions, I'd probably go a bit crazy. And I think that's what happens to people. The more power you have, the more danger it is that you will only hear what you want to hear, that you will only be told things that flatter you, and you become convinced that you are right, and you persist in certain courses of action, even when the costs become very high, perhaps intolerable.

Margaret Thatcher is an example. Her finest moment probably was the Falklands War when, against all advice, she challenged the junta in Argentina, and she won. But that victory unfortunately convinced her that she knew better than other people, and so she persisted in what was, in retrospect, a very silly decision, to try to get rid of household taxes with a flat tax, so someone living in a mansion would pay exactly the same as someone living in a very modest dwelling. As we know, the "poll tax" was wildly unpopular – people warned her against it, her own advisers told her not to do it, and she simply persisted, and it was the end of her career.

Hubris in totalitarian regimes, however, leads to much darker places…
Hitler was convinced, and became more convinced as time went on, that he was the man of destiny. The very fact that he'd survived a couple of assassination attempts made him feel that Providence had laid its hand on him and that what he was doing was right. And he had this hideous mission to, as he conceived of it, make the Aryan race triumphant and remove all those he felt were unfit or inferior, including, of course, the Jews of Europe and of the world, and nothing would deter him. Egged on by his hubris, he was prepared to see Germany destroyed and see millions of non-Germans killed in the pursuit of this goal.

Another individual characteristic you think helps us understand the past is leadership. How so?
Great leaders have this innate ability to bring good people along with them. What really struck me about Mackenzie King, for example, was that he had strong people in his cabinet, and that says something about his confidence, about his ability to pick people and his ability to let them not have their heads, but manage their own areas of responsibility without him interfering. I think great leaders also know when not to go too far ahead of those they're leading. If a leader goes down a path that is really not supported by those around or who vote for him, he – or she – is going to get into trouble. Whether it is Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the Great Depression or Winston Churchill in the Second World War, astute leaders have the ability to sense when it's time to pull back and to recognize your own limitations. This is very important.

What do you think about the leadership on offer by our political class in the current election? And please, don't hold back.
For any prime minister, it's dangerous if you've been in office too long. You are surrounded by fewer and fewer people; you build a tight wall of loyalists around you. I sometimes wonder if Stephen Harper is really listening beyond a very small circle. It surprised me that he has been slow to respond to public concern over the Syrian refugee crisis because he is a very skilled politician.

[Thomas] Mulcair and [Justin] Trudeau are vying to show us that they can be leaders in the first place, by defining their personalities and positions. That said, there is a real problem with political campaigns today. The dominance of the strategists and pollsters is making people in positions of leadership very, very cautious. I think there's a real longing among the public for leaders who say, "Look, this is where I stand and this is what I think and, if you don't like it, let me explain what I want to do and why." This dynamic is part of the appalling success of Donald Trump. He's not afraid to say what he thinks, and people – in my view completely mistakenly – find this authentic and refreshing in a politician.

What politician today embodies some of the characteristics of greatness that you've seen in leaders from the past?
One reason for Angela Merkel's success in Germany is that she has not been afraid to lay out what exactly she thinks. At the moment, she is taking a very forthright position on the refugee crisis. You don't have to agree with her, but I think in a way it's a relief to have someone who says: "I'm a leader, this is what I'm going to do." Personally, I don't actually want to be appealed to just on the basis of my self-interest. I don't want a leader who says to me: "I really care only about old-age pensioners; I want to make sure that you get free medical care, free eye-glasses and that your pension is okay." I want a leader who can actually think in a broader sense about society as a whole.

This interview has been edited and condensed. Subscribe to The Next Debate podcast on iTunes or visit

How do we understand the past? Is history at its essence the sweep of nations and empires and the large impersonal social, economic and environmental forces that drive change? For historian Margaret MacMillan the past is more complicated than this. It is in the lives of individuals, great and small, and the human characteristics of leadership, curiosity and hubris, to name a few, that we find some of the most important insights into our shared humanity and the meaning of humankind's common past.

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