Leaders we don’t deserve: Met any tyrants lately?

stalin_02.jpgBook Review: Dictatorial CEOs & their Lieutenants: Inside the executive suites of Mao, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Ataturk. Jeff Schubert assesses dictators and their lackeys as CEOs and their lieutenants. It’s an appealing metaphor. How far can it be taken?

Other leadership researchers have noted various psychological traits associated with high achievers in general, and influential leaders in particular. Jeff Schubert approaches this fascinating subject from the opposite direction. He examines famous dictators as CEOs, and their inner circles of lieutenants. Schubert publishes on a site where you can find some of the ideas extended into this book-length analysis.

Schubert concerns himself with tyrants on the grand scale. His gang of six are Mao, Napoleon, Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin and Ataturk. Even this group defies simplistic reductionism, or distillation from it of the essence of tyranny.

First of all, the book is an enjoyable read. Who can resist the intimate tales told by those intimates at the very heart of the kitchen cabinets of the six main characters? Certainly not anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of leadership in all its manifestations.

What’s the story?

The book is an exploration of the corrosive consequences of power. In over three hundred pages we have an extended essay around the notion. Although the author does not make the point directly, it might be seen as an exploration of the maxim that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The expression has been attributed to the English peer, Lord Acton, writing to Bishop Mandell Creighton:
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
The six essays are pretty convincing evidence of the primary point, and also of the secondary point, that the process is the antithesis of Portia’s stunning plea in The Merchant of Venice on the essential quality of mercy. In contrast, power is twice cursed, we might say. It damages the person who wields it, and those who are subjugated through its effects. The inner circle of ‘lieutenants’ are forced into a servile role, and reduced to ‘Nodding donkeys’. The author provides evidence that the tyrannical leaders believed (or anyway, asserted) that those under their control needed the certainties provide by the absolute leader. Somewhere between the masses and the leader can be found the inner circle, servile, but seduced into compliance, attracted to the reflected glory, and exercise of their own secondary influence over those further from the centre.

The conceptual leap

The author then makes a more controversial conceptual leap. He suggests that the same process can be applied to understand tyrannical leadership as a more universalistic principle. Conceding that there are shades of grey in ‘motives for seeking power’ he notes:

..the tendency is always the same … power becomes a narcotic … The people who .. allow themselves to be dominated [do so] because of the [personal] advantages… The basic result is always the same ..in individual businesses, business associations, sporting clubs.. institutions , and government bodies of all kinds’.


The academic reader will object that the author has been too rash in arguing from the six central case examples, to a theory of human behavior. If he gets away with it, this is because the broad maxim has considerable appeal. It works, and can be heard whenever there is a discussion (or even a monologue) on the petty tyrants of the state, or the office, or the barrack square.

The academic writer would, more conventionally, have built up the case, providing a descriptive model of the theory, and the inter-relationships within it. As it is, the theory leaps, fully formed, in the introduction of the book, and is subsequently related to the six anti-heroes of its title.

Nevertheless, I agree with the views of several advocates (‘back-cover puffers’ as they are known in the publishing trade). ‘This book cuts across boundaries. Its research methods are far from orthodox. This is why I would recommend it.’

Putting the book in context

The book explores territory that was earlier given a psychoanalytical treatment by Kets de Vries, and more recent studies by Barbara Kellerman. Manfred Kets de Vries focuses on the psychoses he detects in the tyrannical leader. On a small scale we have the petty tyrant of the office place. On a grand scale the tyrants of history.

Kellerman identified a typology with seven categories of bad leadership: incompetence, rigidity, intemperance, callousness, corruption, insularity and unmitigated evil.

The authorities cited confront the fundamental question: Are those few tyrants whose deeds fill our history books truly something special? The Man as Schubert expresses it here, or the Ubermann of Neitsche. Or might they represent extreme examples of ordinary behaviors? Were they illustrating, in an evocative phrase, banality of evil, which was Arnent’s conclusion after witnessing the trial of Eichmann? If so, Kellerman’s schema is a true typology not a spectrum.

At very least we have a compelling metaphor to explore behaviors of some contemporary political and commercial leaders, as Schubert does elsewhere.


2 Responses to Leaders we don’t deserve: Met any tyrants lately?

  1. […] with other commentators, I have found the Schubert Proposition interesting and well-researched historically. It has the additional merit of […]

  2. […] Schubert has made a study of tyrants. His powerful critique of the tyrant has been discussed in earlier posts in Leaders we deserve. He believes that the tyrants may differ […]

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