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The great dictators

first_img Previous Article Next Article The great dictatorsOn 21 May 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Recent biographies of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler exploretheir motivation and impact as leaders. While there is little doubt the SecondWorld War dictators were masterful at leading the masses, have they gotsomething to teach today’s HR professionals about management? Paul Simpsonexamines their success and reviews the biographiesNow that Attila The Hun has authored his own book full of management tips,albeit posthumously, it cannot be long before the world’s bookshelves aregraced by such bestsellers as Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Dictators andJoseph Stalin’s Six Steps To Conflict Resolution. The suggestions may seem facetious, but there’s a serious point. Monstrousas they might have been, stories about the rise and fall of the world’sdictators may tell us something about ourselves, even – perish the thought – theway the companies we work in are run. But let’s not be silly about this; Hitler didn’t fail because he was a poorman manager. He failed because he made it clear to most of the world that thealternative to fighting him was slavery or death. However, sometimes theextreme nature of these regimes makes it easier to spot behaviours that couldbe submerged in other more peaceable organisations. Hitler, Mussolini andStalin were alike in their belief in their own greatness and their pathologicalreluctance to hear or accept bad news. Now be honest: doesn’t one or both ofthose traits describe chief executives or bosses you’ve worked with? The world is never short of new biographies on Hitler, Stalin or, to alesser degree, Mussolini, for the simple reason that we are fascinated by whatdrives men to such extremes and marks them out as different. But if you readthe latest crop of biographies there are moments when they don’t seem thatdifferent to the rest of us or, even, to other managers – as uncomfortable asit might sound. Bruce Pauley’s comparative study Hitler, Stalin and Mussolinimakes this point most clearly. In purely selfish terms, only Stalin can be said to have succeeded to anygreat extent in that he remained in power until a not-untimely death. Stalin’sexperience contrasts with that of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of CommunistVietnam, who was a low-key leader who encouraged collective decision-makingand, although he was involved in three major wars, tried to avoid conflict. His regime endures today, but his low-key approach may have led rivals,encouraged by the Chinese, to regard him as weak. In 1957, his mistress (andmother of his son) was raped and murdered by the head of the Vietnamese secretpolice – a crime no other dictator would have left unpunished – and by the timehe died in 1969 he was regarded as ‘Uncle Ho’ by his country’s younger leaders.That fate never befell Chairman Mao, who had his own peculiar approach tohuman resources. Fortunately, the Chinese leader’s theory, that it didn’tmatter if his country lost half a billion people in a nuclear war because theywould still have half a billion left and would therefore be the winners, wasnever put to the test. Adolf Hitler The management textbooks: Hitler Hubris and Nemesis by Ian Kershaw (Penguin)ISBNs 0140288988, 0140272399 His life in one paragraph Austrian good for nothing who failed at almost everything he’d done, apartfrom being a soldier, until he was 30. Born the same year as Stalin (1889), herose to power in circumstances still debated today and presided over one of themost infamous regimes the world has known. After taking on Britain, the US andthe USSR simultaneously, he was defeated and killed himself in a Berlin bunkerin 1945. What kind of leader was he? Of all the dictators, Hitler scores highest measured against the definitionof what makes a leader, as opposed to a manager, by Abraham Zaleznik, theprofessor of leadership at Harvard Business School. Hitler did articulate ashared vision, set a personal example regarding the values inherent in thatvision, took risks in the interest of that vision (although not, ultimately, inthe interests of the collective), and motivated exceptional performance byappealing to the values and emotions of followers. He inspired with his confidence, determination, and persistence and engagedin symbolic behaviour such as acting as a spokesperson for the collective.Historians still debate whether Hitler did what he did because the Germanpeople lived in fear or were, to use the title of a recent controversial book,Hitler’s willing executioners. Yet, in his sinister fashion, he did inspire a part of the German nation andwas, largely, popular until 1939 when he invaded Czechoslovakia and the massesrealised that, contrary to his protestations, he really did want war. He took care to live up to his image, not wearing glasses but readingspeeches in large print, being photographed in his uniform and refusing toaccept the salary offered his chancellor – an effective PR gimmick – althoughthe Mein Kampf royalties kept him rich. The image of the Fuhrer working tirelessly away at his desk is fixed in theminds even of his critics but this image of the ultimate Type A workaholicisn’t, Kershaw makes clear, the whole truth. Hitler often retreated to hisvilla in Berchtesgaden to hide from his ministers. Behind that image of aruthless efficient regime there was, above all, chaos, a vast chaos created byHitler’s sheer laziness and need to be the indispensable arbiter in ahopelessly disorganised and disunited government. How successful was he? Like many charismatic leaders in business, Hitler was immensely successful,by his own estimates, in the short term. But his growing conviction thatprovidence was speaking through him (and that anyone who argued with him waswrong) and his style of setting subordinates at each other’s throats by givingthem the same task ultimately undermined the regime. His goals were clear in peacetime (although concealed from world leaders andeven the German public) and even, when successful, in war, but not from 1941onwards. His twin goals, defeating the Allies and exterminating the Jews, werein the short term incompatible because they were both a huge drain on finiteresources. His brutal attitude to the conquered people of eastern Europe forcedthem to resist to survive. And, like too many leaders, he fell for the fallacyof his own infallibility, a belief inspired, initially, by his knack foroutguessing his cautious generals. Like Mussolini, he had an absolute gift for appointing the wrong people.Most of his inner circle were fawning incompetents or mad, the obviousexception being Albert Speer, who revived Germany’s war economy. Hitler’s deathin a Berlin bunker was no chance occurrence; it’s the finale he would havescripted. Like many a disappointed leader, he blamed his people, saying theydidn’t deserve to win. How good is the book? Kershaw’s two-volume biography bids for definitive status with its sheerbulk and accumulation of detail. Kershaw is at his best delineating the ThirdReich’s labyrinthine decision-making process and Hitler’s hold on Germany. Hisreticence about Hitler’s personal life lets him down as the Fuhrer remains,ultimately, a one-dimensional monster. Benito Mussolini The management textbook: Mussolini by R.J.B. Bosworth (Arnold) ISBN 0340731443 The life in one paragraph Socialist agitator and journalist turned patriot after the outbreak of WorldWar I who took over power as fascist leader in 1922. Sealed disastrous alliancewith Hitler in 1939 which led Italy to war and defeat as the Nazis’ allies andended with Mussolini’s execution by his own countrymen, in 1945. Il Duce was62. What kind of leader was he? Mussolini was the ultimate tactical manager who couldn’t spell the wordstrategy, let alone come up with one. He was also the ultimate ‘do as I say’manager – a flaw exacerbated by his habit of saying different things to peopleabout the same subject on the same day. He once said: “My ministers arelike light bulbs I switch on and switch off”, and he usually switched offthe more gifted ones. He was a conscientious, if hopeless, leader who liked tomake sweeping statements about what Italy must do but changed the subject whenanyone asked how such goals were to be achieved. Il Duce concentrated power in his own hands (in 1926 he was prime minister,head of three government departments, all the armed forces and the fascistmilitia) for fear of potential rivals, but he would not delegate. The resultwas that instead of reforming the Italian state as he had pledged, he paralysedmost of it. If you take Zaleznik’s list of leadership attributes, Mussolini only reallysucceeded at the symbolic stuff – he probably never inspired an exceptionalperformance from anybody, for example. How successful was he? Even judged by his vague goals to transform Italian society and improve itsposition in the international pecking order, Mussolini was a complete failure.The Italian economy, though, may have outperformed its rivals in terms ofgrowth and full employment until 1938 after which, in its most critical period,it declined. His failure is underlined by the fact that, alone of the ‘great’dictators, he was deposed not just by his own people but by the leaders of hisown party who voted their lack of confidence in him, giving the king the excuseto sack him. How good is the book? Bosworth is too busy arguing with other historians to offer massive insightinto Mussolini. At times, arguments about theories overwhelm the personaldetail about the dictator’s life. You get a much better sense of Mussolini fromDenis Mack Smith’s biography Mussolini (Phoenix) ISBN 1842126067, which isstill available. A pity because Bosworth does underline how every sin offascist Italy is blamed squarely on Il Duce, a man who, Bosworth compellinglysuggests, may never have believed in any cause greater than his ownself-aggrandisement and seemed, ultimately, disappointed by the human resources,that is the Italian people, with whom he tried to change history. Mack Smith’sbook also serves as a wonderful cautionary tale of corporate life. Joseph Stalin The management textbook: Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky (Sceptre) ISBN 0340680466 His life in one paragraph Born in Georgia in 1889, Stalin grew up in an abusive home, and soon gave upon his childhood ambition to be a monk (to mum’s eternal disapproval) to becomea revolutionary. His contribution to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution wasnegligible and when he succeeded Lenin in power he felt obliged to punish ordestroy all those who had played a bigger part than him. Initiated purges whichkilled or imprisoned millions and have never been rationally explained but ledthe Soviet Union to victory over Hitler. Died of a stroke in 1953 before hecould unleash a final purge. What kind of leader was he? Psychologically astute, possessed of a certain psychopathic charm, possiblyafflicted by the horrendous beatings he suffered as a child and the suicide ofhis wife (a tragedy he would have felt more deeply because of his own sensethat he might have contributed to it), Stalin was the ultimate eminence grise. Although his working day didn’t typically start until about midday, heunderstood the power of detail far more than any of his rivals and had theself-discipline to sift through tons of paperwork to ensure that each one ofhis goals was being met. His ego was even larger than the empire he ruled over– unlike Hitler and Mussolini, he got his name inserted into the nationalanthem. Ultimately, the regime he created had no real values other than fear of(and slavish devotion to) the dictator referred to by his uneasy colleagues as‘the old man’ – a lesson every manager who manages by fear (albeit a milderfear) should learn. How successful was he? Judged purely by his own selfish terms, extraordinarily successful. Heseized power in the mid-1920s, expanding his power base (and his regime) untilhis death in 1953. The purges protected his position, representing in extremehomicidal form the kind of change that runs through many organisations when anew leader arrives. Yet the very structure he murderously created began to fall apart while hewas alive. His subordinates, partly in fear for their lives, probably left himto die on the floor of his dacha after he had had a stroke. By 1956 his heirs had repudiated him in one of the biggest U-turns inpolitical history. Stalin’s contribution to political theory is on a par withLuxembourg’s contribution to the history of naval warfare and, with the old mangone, nothing underpinned the regimes of Brehznev and Chernenko except brazenself-interest. Stalin is still credited with defeating the Nazis, although you could arguethat he helped Hitler by purging the Soviet Army’s officer corps and ignoringrepeated invasion warnings. Fighting for his own survival and that of hisregime, he gave the generals an unusual degree of autonomy. But as soon asvictory was achieved, he purged millions more in a bid to keep down thepopulace and his subordinates. He could be charming, sensitive and brutal, a man who liked to get hissubordinates drunk in the hope they might incriminate themselves, who had ahabit of ringing his old Bolshevik pals to wish them well after signing theirdeath warrants. What he failed to do, to return to Zaleznik’s criteria, was to instill anyvalues but fear in the collective and so, ultimately, he – as much as Gorbachevor Yeltsin – made the break up of the Soviet Union inevitable. How good is the book? A revelation. Takes the reader inside Stalin’s reasoning (if one can usethat word) in a way none of the other books quite manage to do. This biographyis a fascinating portrait of how one man accumulated unprecedented power andkept it until his death. It also at times, in its detail of the subordinatesendlessly shuffling for favour or sheer survival, reads like a dark Kafkaesquefable of 20th century corporate life. Related posts:No related photos.last_img read more