Even today, news sources including the New York Times (for example, in this article) use a euphemism – “leader” – to refer to Muammar Gaddafi’s position within his country. Indeed, a quick search using Google finds 16.4 million pages that refer to Muammar Gaddafi as the “Libyan leader.” That’s compared to 1.9 million pages calling him (perhaps inaccurately) the “Libyan president,” 1 million calling him the “Libyan dictator,” and a paltry 326,000 calling him the “Libyan ruler.”
Reporters should avoid this lazy attribution. Leaders obtain followers through persuasion, inspiration, and exemplification. In contrast, rulers and bosses use force or bribery (e.g., wages) to obtain others’ cooperation or mimicry. Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were leaders, perhaps presidents in democratic societies are leaders, but Qaddafi?
If reporters are searching for a neutral term, why not ruler, head of state, or chief? But please don’t automatically call anyone in charge of a country or organization a leader. It cheapens the term while subtly legitimating domination.