2 January 2011
The health of nations and their peoples can be closely linked to the state of their leadership. David Owen, in his book “In Sickness and In Power” (review here), presents a variety of examples from recent history of leaders with illnesses and in what ways their illness affected their abilities as leaders.
One particularly important ‘illness’ he mentions is called hubris. Hubris in leaders means they are unable to acknowledge defeat, read the handwriting on the wall, admit mistakes, and importantly, resign from office.
Some of our fellow travellers on planet Earth are inflicted with leaders subject to this illness, and who don’t know when to resign. The countries where this is apparent are many, not all are autocratic states, but it is in autocratic states that the power of the leaders can silence opposition and perpetuate their unhealthy tenure in office.
So here is some career guidance for autocrats:
- Nothing is forever. You won’t understand this. As a probable psychopath you’ll cling to power until your hands are chopped off. But more importantly, you don’t understand history. Every single autocratic regime in history has either collapsed from within or been overthrown from abroad. Your time is limited, and you may think you’re different, that you’ll create some time-defying legacy, but you’re wrong. The problem is knowing when forever ends, as you are like the boiled frog — the incremental slow building up of social, political, economic forces inside your little world are relentlessly cooking you and you are not noticing this. You’ll learn too late that it is too late. Better to go at at the top of your game (that way you don’t have to spend the rest of your life hiding in some desert with your money frozen in a Swiss bank account). But you don’t understand this either, as the good times are rolling for you and you don’t think about the future as you live in the here and now. Tick tock.
- Love your children. Your efforts to create a dynasty will only serve to delay the inevitable. If you are really concerned about your children, you will not want them to follow you. Succession within families, even monarchies, is a difficult process, and the accumulation of public dissent over the years and across generations means that you are often signing the death warrant for your children. As a caring father, (most autocrats are male; it has to do with testosterone), you should listen to your wife (assuming you’ve restrained yourself to one) who understands better than you that a dynastic approach will lead to the sudden termination of your children at the end of a rope or a bullet. So better to decide that you are the first and last of your kind, and ensure your children get a good education and do not follow in your own footsteps.
- Trust others. Of course, this is hard to do as you are unlikely to trust many people, but think you can at least trust your family. If the only people you can trust are in your family, be warned: families can become breeding grounds of real jealousy, particularly between siblings — that’s why you shouldn’t buy off your brother’s affections by making him head of the secret police. This advice only applies if you display normal human emotion such as love; otherwise, you treat your family simply as pawns in your self-serving game.
- Embrace dissent. Since you have probably run your country with an iron fist for sometime, people around you have become sycophants; better that than be put in one of your dirty jails. That means that you are not going to get good career advice from your advisors as they will be self-serving, too — you can probably still dish out the treats for those around you and there are always people who suck up to people like you (you like this, but fail to notice that it lacks sincerity). They will not tell you that you have passed your sell-by date. This means that you should be mindful of those who disagree with you, as they may be right. Exiling them only buys you time, as they have a tendency to show up a few years later to replace you.
- You can’t be a benevolent autocrat. This is an oxymoron. People don’t love you, despite what you may think. What you see as benevolence is really just evidence that you don’t think your fellow citizens are smart enough to lead their own lives; you act as though you are the only one who knows what they need. But this is of course silly, despite the fact that you may hold court in some palace where the ‘ordinary citizen’ comes for guidance, even justice. Such a forum is simply medieval and perpetuates your belief in your own importance, but carries little by way of real substance. Furthermore, the evidence that you aren’t loved is all around you if you took the time to look: you travel everywhere in armoured vehicles, surround yourself with a private army, sleep fitfully, perhaps suffer from constipation and that can make anyone bad tempered. You kid yourself into thinking that you are acting in everyone’s best interests, but if you’ve read the other 4 points, you know you are living in a gilded hell.
It is worth adding that this advice can apply to all of us, whether democratically elected politicians, appointed chief executives, very rich, parents or simply ourselves.