Can Control Freaks or Tyrants Ever Truly Lead?

By Thomas J. Lee

Was Hitler a true leader?

How about Stalin? Was he a real leader?

And what would you say about Mao? Pol Pot? Idi Amin?

Closer to home, is a CEO who rules by fear and terror a genuine leader? Where do respect, trust, and dignity — by the leader, for the led; and by the led, for their leader — come into play?

Can a dictator ever be a leader? Where do you draw the line between tyranny and leadership? Where, if anywhere, does one begin and the other end?

I teach leadership, both for bright university graduate students and for managers in business. Sooner or later, in almost every class, Hitler's name comes up. Then the other names: Stalin, Mao, ad nauseum.

Quite a few participants in every class say yes, Hitler was indeed a leader. How else can you explain his rapid emergence from obscurity to a merchant of mayhem wreaking tumult throughout Europe and beyond?

But just as many participants say no. They insist that by definition a leader generates a voluntary following, and that to conflate arbitrary fiat with genuine leadership is confusing at best and misleading at worst.

The questions only get tougher: What exactly is leadership, and what, after all, does it mean to lead? Is it always honorable? If it is mere influence devoid of a moral metric, should we think of a carnival barker as a leader? A heroin pusher? An advertising copywriter? A mugger with a gun? A political gerrymanderer? An advice columnist?

Let's stipulate the essentials of both points of view. Yes, leadership involves bringing about a big change in thinking. And yes, leadership involves a voluntary or discretionary following. True leaders have a foot in both camps. Let's also stipulate that mutual respect, trust, and dignity are essential to the leadership bond that keeps the whole thing alive.

Still, after acknowledging all that and after wrestling with all the many troublesome questions, I came to the conclusion we need a way of reconciling morality, for good or ill, with impact. After all, at the risk of sounding like a nihilist, the fact is that Hitler had his adherents. Decades later, he still does. So just how can we square that brutish fact with our thinking about leadership? 

My answer was to develop a simple hierarchy, broadly faithful to the variety of leadership we have seen throughout history. It has four archetypes that admit a wide variance.

Each of the archetypes is a broad orientation defined basically by its attitude and disposition toward independent thought, speech, and action.

The most primitive orientation we call the absolute archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hostile, crushing. As much as possible, it wants to prevent any such thing. It declares: No, you cannot!

From monarchs to megalomaniacs, history is replete with examples of voluntary fealty to such absolute leadership. At first glance none of it makes much sense. The 20th century is especially confounding, as the world had the benefit of 150 or 200 years of successful democracy to observe and emulate. Still, millions of people came under the seductive siren song of Nazism, communism, and fascism — some by will, some by apathy, some by force. They paid with their lives and reaped only havoc in return.

Wherever such a primitive brand of leadership has taken hold, it has required generations and selfless courage to cast aside. Most of the world has done just that. We have made it to what we now might call the traditional archetype.

Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is not outright hostile, but it is heavyhanded. As much as possible, this archetype wants to control it, to channel it narrowly, to determine who can think, say, and do what. It declares: You must!

Some of us, perhaps most of us, have evolved further to what now passes for conventional management and leadership. We call it the modern archetype. Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is willful. As much as possible, it wants to influence what you think, say, and do. It declares: You should!

So common is this archetype today that you can walk into any bookstore or library, and you will find scores of books asserting that influencing people is the central task of leadership. John Maxwell, a widely published author, goes so far as to assert that leadership is influence and influence is leadership period.

Now, in the 21st century, we are on the precipice of the next orientation of leadership. We can call it the progressive or liberal archetype (terms derived more from philosophy than contemporary politics). Its attitude toward independent thought, speech, and action is hopeful, trusting, confident. As much as possible, it seeks to inspire what people think, say, and do. It declares: You can!

So we have gone from preventing independent thought, speech, and action to controlling it, and from controlling it to influencing it, and now, hopefully, from influencing it to inspiring it.

So where do Hitler and other tyrants come in? 

To the extent they build the fealty of others to gain power, they are squarely in the first quadrant: absolute leadership. They were or are indeed leaders, especially in the early going, when they muster support among enough people to account for a critical mass. But that initial and voluntary support is not enough for their all-consuming appetite. They have a visceral need to prevent any independent thought, speech, and action, because their continuing domination of everything within reach depends on it.

Unfortunately, leaders can become tyrants, and in fact some of them do just that. Their leadership fails when, at long last, they lose or abandon respect, trust, and dignity for their followers, and thus for themselves, and when their followers also lose respect, trust, and dignity for the erstwhile leaders. Until then, yes, they can and may very well successfully lead people.