In a timely address Tuesday, Elder Neal A. Maxwell encouraged newly elected leaders to learn lessons from history on exercising power wisely for the good of the people.
Elder Maxwell, a member of the Council of the Twelve of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said, "Few mortal leaders are evil, but many seek to govern as if there were no lessons from the past to guide the shaping of the future."Expressing appreciation for those who are willing to work in the trenches of public service, Maxwell told Salt Lake Rotary Club members that history has shown "few handle the prerogatives of power well."
George Washington was one of the few leaders who used his power gently for the best welfare of those he governed, Elder Maxwell said. The president learned from his mistakes, accurately defining his failures and searching for reasons behind them.
But for those who are slow to learn from mistakes, it helps to have the advice of wise, caring and candid colleagues.
Elder Maxwell said it is a mistake to select docile "yes-men" to give advice. Listening "too uncritically" to others can be a problem.
Pride and vanity are are the potential pitfalls of men in authority. "Political leaders can be a peacock today and a mere feather duster tomorrow. Personal meekness helps so much, regardless of one's plumage," Elder Maxwell said.
One of the special challenges of power is to remain sufficiently meek.
General Douglas Haig of World War I provides an example of the perils of failing to listen to the counsel of those in the trenches, Elder Maxwell said.
Under Haig's command, a wave of 11 British divisions climbed out of their trenches on a 13-mile front and began walking forward. They faced a mere six German divisions, but the Germans mowed down the attackers with machine guns. Of the 110,000 who attacked, 60,000 were killed or wounded.
Unlike Washington, Haig did not learn from his mistakes and refused to admit any fallibility.
"Power carries special frustrations, especially if we ignore the lessons we have supposedly already learned," Elder Maxwell said.
President Woodrow Wilson's inability to assuage senior senators concerning the League of Nations was especially ironic because years before Wilson had been an insightful political science professor and college president. "Yet Wilson's style was not to seek advice," Elder Maxwell said.
"If a leader resists feedback and has a staff who protects him too much, then difficulty is almost always inevitable. I have long wished each president of the United States could have a chief skeptic on his staff - with tenure. The skeptic could scoff, even guffaw, at dumb ideas brought forward."
Leaders must strike the delicate balance of being both teachers and reflectors of the will of the people. Leaders often underestimate the readiness of the public to be educated on an issue.
"We are not required to learn from history. It is an elective course," Elder Maxwell said. "However, it is a course for the elected."