In his nine years as Prime Minister of Macedonia – a country now riddled with failed institutions, ethnic tensions, and murderous conflict – Nikola Gruevski morphed from a man once considered reticent and insecure to a megalomaniacal tyrant. It remains unclear how to explain this miserable metamorphosis.
What is clear is that it is not unusual. Tyrants, dictators, the most atrocious of autocrats, seem at a distance to be made not born. This is not to say that rigorous biographical analysis does not yield a childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood that in some ways foreshadows the murder and mayhem yet to come. Rather it is to say that to all outward appearances even the worst of the lot tend to start life in ordinary, and in some number of cases even promising, ways.
Adolph Hitler wanted to become a fine artist. He turned to politics only after being rejected twice from Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts. Nor was he the only member of the Nazi elite with other, early ambitions. Joseph Goebbels, for example, Hitler’s acolyte and notorious Minister of Propaganda, studied history and literature and wrote his doctoral thesis on a 19th century German romantic writer.
Joseph Stalin published poetry and won a scholarship to the leading Orthodox Seminary in Tbilisi.
Mao Zedong originally studied to become a teacher.
Radovan Karadzic received his degree in medicine and went on to become a practicing psychiatrist, with a subspecialty in depression. He was also, like Stalin, a published poet.
And Bashar al-Assad, held largely responsible for the deaths of some 300,000 Syrians and for the largest refugee crisis in a generation, was also a practicing physician, in his case with a specialty in ophthalmology.
Is there a lesson to be learned here? Not about individuals, maybe, but about groups. Clearly we cannot predict with any certainty which individuals will evolve from being apparently ordinary to obviously fiendish. What we can say for certain is that this evolution does not take place in a vacuum. It is allowed by others who, for whatever constellation of reasons, tolerate and even enable it.
Yesterday I posted a blog lamenting the leadership industry’s single-minded focus on single individuals. I argued instead for a more holistic or systemic approach, one that takes into account those who are other than the leader, and also the contexts within which the relevant players are situated.
Later in the day I was reading the Financial Times and came on a piece titled, “Horses for courses that gee up working relationships.”* The article described part of a two-week executive training course that had been organized by the London Business School for partners from the consulting firm AT Kearney. The idea was for these executives to earn the trust of selected horses so that they might lead them around the arena. Why? “For participants to learn about themselves and the unconscious signals they send to clients or colleagues, or indeed horses.”
I have nothing against horses. Or for that matter against equine “guided learning.” Rather the question is this one. How is the time for learning leadership allocated?
The course described in the article is two weeks in duration. Does two weeks of executive learning even make sense? Is two weeks enough time in which to accomplish anything that will endure and is somewhat substantive?
Even assuming that the answer to these questions is yes, how best to use the two weeks? Has it been demonstrated that spending some of this precious time on equine guided learning is optimum? Might this same amount of time be better spent another way? Better spent thinking not about the self or about the “unconscious signals” we send, but about the other? Better spent learning about complex problems that defy simple solutions?
As anyone who knows my work knows by now, I am disenchanted with the leadership industry’s single-minded focus on single individuals.
Why? Because the results of this approach have been disappointing. We have not succeeded in developing leaders equipped to meet the demands of the 21st century.
Why? Because the problems of the 21st century are more complex than the education and training that we provide. In other words, a systemic approach to leadership development would be better, far better, than simply training our lens on select individuals.
Thinking about the world as a system comprised of different parts – rather than as a place in which only one part (the leader) pertains – is not new or original to me. What is different is the idea that this systemic approach should be embedded in, embraced by, the leadership industry.
The leadership system as I describe it is simple – it has only three parts. The leader. The followers – or the others to whom the leader in any way relates. And the context – or contexts (plural), within which both leaders and followers are located.
I do not argue that every systems approach should mimic mine. What I do argue for is a clearer understanding of the ways in which power is shared, and of the ways in which the system itself determines how.
To wit, this excerpt from a recent article by Jeffrey Toobin in The New Yorker, titled “The Milwaukee Experiment.”*
“One of the difficulties of criminal justice reform is that power is spread so diffusely though the system. ‘Criminal justice is a system, and no one person or group is in charge of it,’ Alfred Blumenstein, a professor at Carnegie-Mellon University, told me. ‘You have legislators who decide what’s a crime and establish the range of penalties. You have judges who impose the sentences. You have police who decide whom to arrest and you have prosecutors who have wide discretion in what cases to bring, what changes to call for, and what sentences to agree to in plea bargains.’ Each of those participants has contributed to the rise in incarceration.”
I rest my case. For now.
My most recent book – Hard Times: Leadership in America – was published in October by Stanford University Press. The book explores the impact of context on leadership and followership.
Beginning February 3, I started posting in this space excerpts. They appear here in the order in which they appear in the book.
Excerpt from Chapter 8 – Law
“Though it is little noted and even less understood, it seems obvious that the ubiquity of the law in twenty-first century America must have an impact, does have an impact, on leadership in twenty-first century America. It is not too much to say that the long arm of the law reaches leaders in government, and in business, and in nonprofits such as schools and hospitals, and in virtually every conceivable area of American life. Even religious leaders, who until relatively recently were generally immune to prosecution in the nation’s courts, are now vulnerable.
This emphasis on, dependence on the legal system as, so to speak, the court of last resort is a peculiarly American phenomenon. Americans have more adversarial legalism: we depend more than other people in other countries on lawyers and lawsuits, on tort actions, and on legal actions against administrative agencies. This explains why so many American leaders think that they have no choice but to “lawyer up,” to make certain that they have their own legal experts to protect both them and the institutions for which they are responsible, against legal liability.
America’s uniquely litigious culture is directly responsible for complicating and constraining the lives of leaders – if only because it takes time and consumes resources …. Attending to litigation or to the possibility thereof, or both is an important part of what leaders are paid now to do.”
The pollsters did a lousy job of forecasting yesterday’s British general election. Instead of a close race between the Labour Party and its leader, Ed Miliband, and the Conservative Party and its leader, Prime Minister David Cameron, the incumbents won a decisive victory. As I write and tradition dictates, Cameron has already met with the Queen. And as I write and convention suggests, he has already returned to 10 Downing Street and reiterated his intention. He will govern as prime minister of “one United Kingdom.”
Just one problem. It’s not clear that this can happen. It’s not clear that Cameron can continue to preside over the United Kingdom as we have known it – which includes Scotland.
On the face of it he has defied the odds. By winning another electoral victory he has gone against the conventional wisdom, which is that in the 21st century democratic leadership is not only notoriously hard but famously unrewarding. But … what kind of prize is it that Cameron has actually won? Will yesterday’s victory turn out historically hollow?
Setting aside the numberless uncertainties that plague every head of state, for sure Cameron’s capacity to lead is threatened twice over. First is the mounting pressure in Scotland for independence – in spite of his constant conciliations and concessions. Labour was nearly wiped out yesterday in Scotland precisely because of the surging Scottish National Party. Which is why it cannot possibly be confidently predicted that when Cameron finally leaves office he will still be presiding over “one United Kingdom.”
Second is that Cameron has committed himself to conducting an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. Again, this is not a circumstance of his own choosing. Just as he would wish away surging Scottish nationalism, so he would wish away the referendum on participation in the European Union. But he cannot. He has been unable in both cases to control the momentum for change, which is precisely why his remaining tenure as prime minister is likely to be more sobering than uplifting. Yes, David Cameron has won reelection. But his moment in the sun will be short-lived. Odds are good that by the time he leaves office England will be a country further diminished.