Is Sepp Blatter a Machiavellian Leader?

May 31, 2015

Sepp Blatter’s contoverial re-election as President of FIFA raises the question of his leadership style

One journalist who has followed his career believes so. In a BBC radio broadcast [29th May, 2015] he related an interview he held in which Blatter had pointed to his ‘poisoned box’ , a filing cabinet of information that would protect him from enemies who attempted to dislodge him.

It brought to my mind the strategies of ‘Comrade Card Index’ Stalin, and the monstrous efforts of other dictatorial regimes to collect information as a matter of self-preservation.

The New Machiavelli?

Other commentators  have borrowed the Machiavellian tag in an attempt to understand Blatter’s success in retaining his high office in FIFA for two decades.

This of itself is not evidence that Blatter is the heir to Machiavelli. After all, Machiavelli was adviser to those in power on survival strategies (rather than being himself one of those who had gained power through following his principles).  Also, for his guile Machiavelli did not succeed in retaining his own position, and suffered lengthy periods of imprisonment as a consequence.

The New Machiavelleans

In the UK, the political advisers to Tony Blair’s leadership were unashamed students of Machiavelli, advocating the practice of a modernized Machiavellian approach to politics.

Tyrants of the boardroom

Perhaps a closer analogy is to those ‘tyrants of the boardroom’ described by Jeff Schubert who likened many powerful business leaders to all-powerful dictators such as Stalin, and Gaddafi


LWD commentator Paul Hinks expresses his own views on the re-appointment of Sepp Blatter

FIFA is now fighting corruption allegations associated with ‘irregularities’ in the award of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

Nine Fifa officials and four executives of sports management companies have been arrested on suspicion of receiving bribes totalling $100m (£65m), according to the US Department of Justice.

The Guardian was among the print media reporting on the incident:

“More than a dozen plain-clothed officers descended on the five-star Baur au Lac hotel on Wednesday [May 28th, 2015], where officials had gathered for Fifa’s annual meeting.

The arrests were made on behalf of US authorities, after an FBI investigation that has been under way for at least three years. The US Department of Justice said authorities had charged 14 officials, nine of whom are current or former Fifa executives. Those arrested in Zurich face extradition to the US.

‘They were expected to uphold the rules that keep soccer honest. Instead they corrupted the business of worldwide soccer to serve their interests and enrich themselves,” said the US attorney general, Loretta Lynch, at a news conference in New York. “They did this over and over, year after year, tournament after tournament.’ Events tainted by corruption included the award of the 2010 World Cup to South Africa and the 2011 Fifa presidential election, she said.”

Blatter questioned the timing of the Wednesday’s arrests of current and former FIFA members – suggesting the raids were carried out in order to influence the presidential vote.

Here is a leader struggling for credibility, out of touch with reality and in love with his own image; Narcissism personified.

Schubert on Julia Gillard

April 24, 2011

Jeff Schubert examines the behaviours of Australian Premier Julia Gillard and asks whether she fits the psychological profile of an irrational authoritarian.

In an article on 23 March in “The Australian” newspaper, journalist Paul Kelly commented on the attitudes and values of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard – and on her apparent contradictions and back-flips on policy. Kelly wrote:

“She warned Kevin Rudd (the former prime minister, whom she deposed) against pricing carbon and then seized this policy. She campaigned against a Big Australia (population growth) and then dropped the rhetoric. She partly re-regulated the labor market and then paraded as pro-market reformer … She appears too much as a work in progress. The reason is obvious – Gillard is a Prime Minister under construction. She is engaged in self-discovery, sorting out not just her policy framework but the convictions for which she will live or die. She is not fully formed as a political persona because she got the job too early.”

Yet, there is possible a more basic – and psychological – explanation. On the face of it, Gillard seems to have many of the personal characteristics of someone who has a fear of failure rather than a need to achieve (in comparison, Tony Abbott, the Leader of the Opposition, has many of the characteristics of the latter category). The difference was extensively explored by Professor Norman Dixon many years ago in his book, “On the Psychology of Military Incompetence”.

Two forms of motivation

Dixon, stressing that he was concerned with primary motivation, rather than secondary motivation, wrote:

“The crucial difference between the two sorts of achievement – the healthy and the pathological – may be summarized by saying that whereas the first is buoyed by hopes of success, the second is driven by fear of failure. … The former is associated with the possession of a strong ego and independent attitudes of mind, the latter with a weak ego and feelings of dependency. Whereas the former achieves out of a quest for excellence in his job, the latter achieves by any means available, not necessarily because of any devotion to the work, but because of the status, social approval and reduction of doubts about the self that such achievement brings. Although these two sorts of achievement motivation may bring about rapid, even spectacular, promotion, their nature and effects are very different. The first is healthy and mature, and brings to the fore those skills required by the job at hand; the second is pathological, immature, and developing of traits, such as dishonesty and expediency.”

If we go by the terminology used by Dixon in his book, Gillard would be described as an ‘irrational authoritarian’.

To go more deeply

Jeff has studied the motivation of leaders deeply. He writes regularly for Leaders we deserve. You can read more of his work on his blog site.

Schubert compares Gadhafi with patterns of tyrannical leadership

March 4, 2011

Jeff Schubert, a frequent commentator for Leaders We Deserve, assesses Gadhafi based on his own extensive studies of tyrannical leaders

Understanding “Dictators” like Gadhafi [Posted 4 March 2011]

Commenting on events in Libya, Jason Pack (St.Antony’s College, Oxford), who has had significant experience in Libya, recently wrote:

As policy makers the world over speculate about what Gadhafi will do next, they should look to the leader’s upbringing, psychology and ideology for clues. To get the true measure of the man and his motivations, one must see past the rambling demagoguery and YouTube parodies. After his bloodless coup d’etate in 1969, Gadhafi struck Westerners who met him as charismatic, confident and idealistic.” Despite his brutality, Gadhafi, sees himself as a “philosopher-king” and is angry and bitter that his “utopian vision” has not been realized. “He is prone to paranoid conspiracy theories about how outside actors have ruined his precious vision because they cannot afford to see his utopia succeed. Assured of his own righteousness, Gadhafi will fight to the bitter end with whatever trusted advisers and praetorian guards will stick by his side.

I do not know whether or not Pack’s assessments are correct, but I like his approach to the issue. Rather than simply saying that Gadhafi is a “bad mad man”, he has recognized that Gadhafi – like all self-made dictators who have survived in power for a long time (in this case 40 years) – has an idealistic side which attracts supporters.

When the writer Emil Ludwig asked Stalin why “everybody” in his country feared him, Stalin rejoined: “Do you really believe a man could maintain his position of power for fourteen years merely by intimidation? Only by making people afraid?”

Of course not!

Stalin – like Hitler and Mao – had ideals. The Yugoslavian politician, Milovan Djilas, who had close dealings with Stalin and his lieutenants from 1944, noted that in Stalin, “certain great and final ideals lay hidden – his ideals, which he could approach by moulding and twisting the reality and the living men who comprised it”.

In my view Pack is being “realistic”. Such realism could also be applied to such people as Robert Mugabe and Fidel Castro. But there is another side to this. Just as many in the West fall into the trap seeing only bad in such dictators, they also fail to see that these “idealistic” traits can drive leaders of their own countries to cruelty – and such leaders can attract many supporters. Psychologically, I think that Tony Blair is the sort of personality who – if had been born in Libya about the same time as Gadhafi – could easily have become a Gadhafi. And, many who have supported Blair over the years would even have been Gadhafi-type supporters. Their sense of “idealism” and their “own righteousness” blinds them to their own cruelty in supporting suppressive regimes and countries.

Gustave M Gilbert, in “The Psychology of Dictatorship: based on an examination of the leaders of Nazi Germany”, wrote about the ability of “decent” people to compartmentalize their thinking so that they can combine idealism with cruelty.

As a general principle …. the normal social process of group identification and hostility-reaction brings about a selective constriction of empathy, which, in addition to the semi-conscious suppression of insight, enables normal people to condone or participate in the most sadistic social aggression without feeling it or realising it.”

Many Germans and many Americans (in the case of their treatment of blacks) when confronted with these inconsistencies in their professed behavior as decent citizens, recognise the inconsistency intellectually, but still find it difficult to modify their behavior. Insight is not sufficient to overcome the deeply-rooted social conditioning of feelings.

Gustave was writing about the internal workings of societies, and specifically countries. But, in the sense that the people of the world are also a society, the same psychological processes apply. In my view, Blair and many others—despite all their idealism—have seen Arabs in the way described by Gilbert.

Leaders we Deserve: On Becoming a King

January 2, 2009


Art reflects life. Hints from great actors like Meryl Streep and Antony Sher help us understand how a leader creates a role in the eyes of their audience.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you always get what you’ve always got”. Regular subscribers will expect no great transformation in the interests of Leader we deserve bloggers in 2009. There will be stories about leaders and what they get up to. Maybe a few lessons suggested for leaders and aspirants.

One regular contributor is Jeff Schubert, who recently sent news of the king-making process (to be precise, it was queen-making). Jeff, reporting an LA Times account, writes:

Meryl Streep loves to tell the story about how one learns to be king.
It dates to her days at Yale Drama School, when the instructor asked
the students how to portray a monarch. “And everybody said, ‘Oh you are assertive,’ and people would say, ‘Oh you speak in a slightly
deeper voice.’ And the teacher said, ‘Wrong. The way to be king is to have everybody in the room quiet when you come in.’ The atmosphere
changes. It’s all up to everybody else to make you king.

I thought that was really powerful information. It’s “up to everybody else” to make you “dictator” – the leader you Deserve.

Year of the king

Jeff’s story brought to mind another on king-making (suggested to me some while ago by anothe Leaders we deserve contributor Susan Moger). It concerns Antony Sher and his magnificent account of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Richard the 3rd in the book The Year of the King . The entire book is worth studying my anyone interested in drama or leadership (are they all that far apart?)

Sher shows that playing the king is not a simple matter of moving from reality to acting. It is a creating of a new kind of reality. A great read.

Now wait a minute …

I don’t think it’s simply a case of leaders being created by other people. We still need to know what it is about the leaders we (help) create which makes them special.

Maybe Meryl Streep’s teacher explains partly what happens when someone walks into a room and achieves high impact in doing so. That’s important in understanding the notion of charisma in as much as might be related to the notion of on-stage presence.

The anecdote about Yale drama school hints at how some of the behaviours of leaders have been observed, and how ‘schooling’ can help develop the same kind on presence on-stage. How, more specifically to make a decent impact on an audience

The anatomy of a high-impact entry

I suspect we need to think carefully about high-impact entry of someone arriving on stage, or entering a room. One situation would be the entry of a complete stranger to those in the room (whom we might want to think of as an audience). The arrival of a mysterious stranger is one of the elements of dramatic action. In contrast, there is the impact of someone with a reputation which accompanies him or her, for better or for worse, when they enter into the room, or arrive on stage (every child is already schooled to boo and hiss the Pantomime villain, and cheer the hero and heroine).

The lure of the marketing promise

We may not believe ourselves to be natural leaders, but many of us are still willing to buy the idea that products help us make that high-impact entry. In the factory we make perfume, as someone said, but in the store we sell hope.

Zimbabwe’s plight needs more than regime change

December 9, 2008


When democracy fails, regime change is desirable but difficult. President Robert Mugabe’s regime is a case in point. Which scenarios are the most promising for addressing Zimbabwe’s mounting problems?

When Robert Mugabe refused to accept the results of the Presidential election he lost any claim to democratic support. It became even clearer that the democratic processes in that country were being be dismissed by Mugabe who continued to retain power through military and economic levers.

Economic meltdown in Zimbabwe continues, compounded with personal tragedy. The Aids epidemic is hardly mentioned in external reports, although the outbreak of cholera [December 2008] is reported as yet one more burden visited on a hapless community.

International pressures are not appearing to speed-up change. Sanctions are hurting the most vulnerable.

Regime change is ‘necessary but not sufficient’

However painful the thought to many people, removing President Mugabe will not solve the country’s desperate problems. There are lessons to be learned from recent history. The collective might and will-power of the United States (with not a little help from Great Britain and others) failed to work out a way of achieving regime change in Iraq which resulted in a plan for future stability. The problems in Iraq and in Zimbabwe are not resolved by limited and linear thinking. It is not enough to focus on the first step (First let’s get rid of Saddam, or Mugabe, and then we can really get things moving in the right direction).

Historical lessons

Our historical analyst Jeff Schubert has studied the rise and fall of tyrants. He is in no doubt over the political lessons for Zimbabwe. He points to how the apparatus of power might unravel:

Toward the end of his life, Stalin’s people personnel policies were catching up with him. His long history of picking-off colleagues and lieutenants one, or two, at a time made some of his lieutenants so fearful that they would be next that they began to resist his divide and rule tactics. Sergo Beria wrote: “In 1951 the members of the Politburo, Bulganin, Malenkov, Khrushchev and my father, began to appreciate that they were all in the same boat and it mattered little whether one of them was thrown overboard a few days before the others. They felt a sense of solidarity once they faced the fact that none of them would be Stalin’s successor – he intended to choose an heir from among the younger generation. They therefore agreed among themselves not to allow Stalin to set one against the other, and they would immediately inform each other of anything Stalin said about them, so as to frustrate his manipulations. … This solidarity among the members of the Politburo increased as time went by

Mussolini’s leading lieutenants also jointly sought some mechanism for achieving peace. On 16 July 1943, with Italy at war on the side of Germany, they went to his office. Giuseppe Bottai said: “We are not here to ask to diminish your powers, or rather your power; not to divide, that is dissect, fragment your responsibility. We are here … to ask to share your responsibility. To make of it, that is, co-responsibility, that binds us to you, but also you to us, in ready, absolute and declared solidarity.”

… but Mussolini would not make clear he would share power in the way that was now demanded, and he would not give up the war. [one of his aides] thought Mussolini was wearing a ‘mask’ – that he had lost his will-power, and was actually ‘resigned’ to his fate. In essence, Mussolini seems to have been trapped within his own image as ‘the Man’ and unable to surrender it even thought he clearly recognized that in some way his end was near.

For me, these lessons from history indicate how power drains away, with courageous actions from those directly in contact with the regime. External powers, however well-meaning, have a wider picture to consider: what can we do, even now, to help the people of Zimbabwe?

One day Robert Mugabe will be gone. Whether he was a hero who became confused and began to believe in his right to rule, or a malevolent force is less central to the change process than the material conditions in the country, and what might be done to bring some relief to its people

Medvedev’s Power Play: A Historical Analysis

November 16, 2008
Dmitri Medvedev

Dmitri Medvedev

On the day Barack Obama won his historic election victory in America, President Medvedev offered two ideas in his State of the Nation address. One was the possibility of redeployment of missiles. The other was a reform which would lead to a President having two six year terms in office. The West, perhaps naturally, seemed more concerned with the former issue. We concentrate here on the proposed constitutional one

The Australian historical scholar Jeff Schubert is now domiciled in Russia, and brings to bear his expertise on the current political situation. He discussed the constitutional change with Leaders we deserve

Psychologically, Medvedev may now be where George W Bush was after the terrorist attaks of September 11, 2001, he argues. Some of Bush’s fears about what might happen next were justified, but his responses, included the military action against Iraq were thoroughly misguided. Schubert considers that some of Medvedev’s fears may be similarly justified, including in his view the activities of the US military so close to Russia’s borders, the deleterious effect of corruption, and the unruly state of some of Russia’s regions.

However, he also argues that Medvedev is looking at the wrong solution in proposing that it be possible for one man to remain at the peak of Russian power for 12 years. It will almost certainly have the consequences of extended periods in power for which there are historical precedents. The thinking processes of the person in power become distorted over time, as do the thinking processes of those around him (or her). Albert Speer, Adolf Hitler’s ‘friend’, architect, Armaments Minister, and for a while the second most powerful man in Nazi Germany, summed it up nicely:

“There is a special trap for every holder of power, whether the director of a company, the head of a state, or the ruler of a dictatorship. His favour is so desirable to his subordinates that they will sue for it by every means possible. Servility becomes endemic among his entourage, who compete among themselves in their show of devotion. This in turn exercises a sway upon the ruler, who becomes corrupted in his turn.”

Louis de Bourreinne, who was Napoleon Bonaparte’s first secretary, called this “corruption” of the thinking processes “a sort of cerebral congestion”.

Even in the US, with its traditions and governmental structure, 12 years for a president would be a negative. Twelve years for a president would also mean 12 years for many other officials who themselves are less important “holders of power”.

Russia’s traditions, political structures – such as the limits on political parties and appointed regional governors – and the perverted distribution of wealth, make 12 years potentially very dangerous.

Speer also wrote that “the key to the quality of the man in power is how he reacts to this situation.”

But can a historical example be expected to fit present day circumstances? Schubert agrees that not all people react in exactly the same way. He contrasted Kemal Ataturk, was much more restrained in his use of power, with Josef Stalin. Even so, he says, Ataturk’s regime had many psychological characteristics that were similar to Stalin’s. Ultimately there was only one source of power, and this was the man at the top.

Notwithstanding the law,. In 1937 President Ataturk sacked Ismet Inonu as prime minister and replaced him with Celal Bayer. Legally, the Ataurk was entitled to appoint the prime minister, but as president he had few direct executive responsibilities. Nevertheless, when someone commended that Bayer has skillfully handled an issue, Ataturk retorted: “The government is in my hands, my hands.”

Turning to today’s Russia he observes that Medvedev ‘likes to speak of the need to strengthen the rule of law, and that ‘he is no-doubt sincere.

…It’s just that Ataturk was in power for so long that his basically authoritarian psychology and the changing needs of the country were moving in opposite directions, and he became a negative rather than positive factor in the country’s development. The legal system, that he played such a dominant role in forming, remained his well-intentioned toy, to be prevented from spinning when he wished.”

He believes that Medvedev is relatively liberal in his outlook, but that his thinking would be “corrupted” by 10 years in power (assuming his present term of 4 years was to be followed by another of 6 years).

The much discussed return to power of Vladimir Putin would become predictably less restrained if he were to return to the presidency. Eight years as president, 4 years as the major power behind his successor, plus a further 12 years as president would bring the total to 24 years. He could be president until 2024 when he would be 72 years of age.

Schubert also notes historical issues of the aging leader, although could have been talking of a contemporary case such as that of Robert Mugabe:

Count Ciano, noted in his diary in 1941 (when Mussolini was 57) that the aging dictatorial CEO can be somewhat sensitive about age: “The Duce (Mussolini) is exasperated by the publication in the magazine Minerva, published in Turin, of a motto by some Greek philosopher or other.” The motto read:

“No greater misfortune can befall a country than to be governed by an OLD tyrant.”

‘Old tyrant’ is not only about age, Schubert points out.

It is about a declining ability to match the desire to hold power with the desire to work, listen and to be engaged ..While Ataturk believed that government was in his “hands”, he was also quite disengaged from those whom he governed. One of his admirers, Falih Rifki Atay remarked: “Ataturk! Before you became President you were always in touch with the people. For years now, it is only us at your dinner table who listen to you. The people haven’t heard your voice. You only read the government’s report at the Assembly openings. This is your only communication.

The results of being too long in power were also summed up by Chen Yuan, an early colleague of Mao Zedong, who said:

“Had Mao died in 1956, his achievements would have been immortal. Had he died in 1966, he would still have been a great man. But he died in 1976. Alas, what can one say?”

Schubert considers that Medvedev runs the risk of allowing similar words to be relevant to Russia’s future.

Is this historical analysis sufficiently tightly argued to apply to today’s political situation? Is there something intrinsically worse over a six or seven year rather than a four year cycle of office? As a French Colleague pointed out, Francois Mitterand was in power for two “septenats” (seven years in office) in the 80-90s, and the arrangement was accompanied by corruption, scandals, and the arrangement was subsequently dropped. On the other hand, the famous case of Margaret Thatcher suggests that it was the second term in office which produced a deterioration of her famed sense of purpose and strategic grip on power. Here it was the double term, (and perhaps from Schubert’s analysis, the aging effect, that was at work, rather than the length of the term.

Alternative capitalisms

Another contextual point is that business schools are having to rethink the entire notion of capitalism to address the problems of the 21st century. There is talk of alternative capitalisms, as suggested Professor Richard Whitley on Manchester Business School. The system built around the family firm in Korea and the other Asian economic little tigers has received attention in the 1980s. Now it is the systems emerging in China and India. We may be forced into a more differentiated view of capitalism. In which case the Russian case may have even more surprises ahead for economic as well as for political commentators.

At RBS, Fred the Shred is not yet dead [update]

August 11, 2008

[Update, Feb 27th 2009. The post below was written before Sir Fred became the target of national hostility towards the ‘buy-out’ conditions for quitting his job, and being listed as one of the ‘ten people who caused the credit crisis’]

Sir Fred Goodwin survives the announcement of RBS’s financial losses, giving a bravura performance to the media. To understand his survival prospects we have to look at his track record

Sometimes they go. Sometimes they stay. Leadership survival under pressure remains a fascinating game of guesswork and analysis. At least in part a beleaguered leader has to avoid appearing to be defeated by circumstances. That was the evidence in the very public performance of Sir Fred Goodwin this week [August 8th 2009].

According to Terry Murden in Scotland on Sunday

Announcing the second biggest loss in banking history would mean the sack for most executives ..but RBS’s Sir Fred Goodwin may have pulled off…The multi-national press corps that trooped into the towering London head office of the Royal Bank of Scotland provided a clear reflection of how the company had been transformed from its days as a provincial bit-player in the financial services industry

In defiance of those who have called for his head, and/or that of his chief executive, McKillop showed no sign of standing aside. He said he would be announcing “in a few weeks” some new appointments to the board that were promised at the time of the year-end results announcement. There has been speculation that one of those would be a senior non-executive who would succeed [chairman] McKillop or at least be groomed to replace him.

Goodwin also gave no indication that he was ready to step down. Last week marked his 10th year at the bank, eight as chief executive, which is a relatively long time by modern standards. Questions have been raised about the succession strategy and why, for instance, the bank has no chief operating officer or deputy chief executive. A clearly indignant McKillop refuted suggestions that succession was not on the bank’s agenda. “The board gives a lot of attention to succession. There is a plan being developed and for 18 months we have been working on it,” he said.

With the shares responding positively to the announcement, it was clear that RBS and the board had escaped what was in danger of being banking’s Armageddon. The bank will make a profit for the full year and has already more than replaced the £5.9bn it has lost in toxic credit market writedowns which will not be repeated in the second half of the year.

Sir Fred’s achievements at RBS

Murden gives a brief history of Sir Fred’s achievements. Much followed a glowing biography in Businessweek in 2004. His reputation as a dynamic financial leader. His entrepreneurial flair which has even been coupled to a charge of megalomania, and a public commitment at one stage to avoid the risks of Empire building. His Fred the shred label was explained in the Business week profile of 2004

Goodwin, known in the City as “Fred the Shred” for his vigorous cost-cutting, joined RBS in 1998, as deputy chief executive to Sir George Mathewson, the current chairman. Prior to that, the native of Paisley, Scotland, was CEO at two British banks, Clydesdale Bank PLC and Yorkshire Bank PLC. Before working at the banks, he was a partner at accountants Touche Ross & Co.

At RBS his great early coup was the hostile acquisition of Nat West, agilely executed in 2002.

Forbes Global (April 15, 2002) noted that the acquisition was “brilliantly strategized” by Goodwin, who trumped his competition (Bank of Scotland) with a carefully constructed integration plan that impressed investors and produced great results, including a 27 percent increase in RBS’s profits. Unfortunately, Goodwin had to cut 18,000 jobs and $1.4 billion in costs in the merger, but his dedication to his investors won the day.

Early successes were followed by the controversial role in the acquisition of ABN in 2007. The move was criticized from the start, and remains enough of a burden to be used as a strategy to dislodge a leader by determined shareholder action.

He was Forbes Businessman for 2002 [“an original thinker with a fast-forward frame of mind who had transformed RBS from a nonentity into a global name”], European Banker of the Year in 2003, Knighted in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list in 2004 although the acquisition of Charter One Financial for $10.5bn is criticised as a costly move for growth. This and a 2005 acquisition of a stake in Bank of China was the period where Goodwin is accused of megalomania and he promises not to indulge in any further big acquisitions.

2007 sees the acquisition of ABN Amro with partners Santander and Fortis, the biggest banking takeover in history. 2008 and the credit crisis just about rescued his reputation when the record £12bn rights issue is taken up, prior to this months’ announcement of record half-year losses of £692m.

A Charismatic leader?

Charisma? For some reason the admiring biographic sketches have not made much of that term. Yet his intuitive and buccaneering style with a self-proclaimed reliance on intuition would appear to make him a prime candidate for the epithet. In this, he is also a candidate for illustrating the recently popularised merits of trusting first instincts in decision-making

Ironically, the first article I found mentioning charisma and Sir Freddie was an account of the Spanish executive Ignacio Galan, and contrasting his charisma with (implicitly) that of the RBS leader:

Watching Ignacio Sánchez Galán in full flight, is a sight to behold. The charismatic chairman and chief executive of Iberdrola has a style which just could not be British. Fluid in his delivery, the 57-year-old comfortably boasts during press conferences about turning Iberdrola – a substantial Spanish utility when he joined in 2001 – into the world’s fourth-largest utility, after buying ScottishPower

A less inspired Madrid-based journalist for a leading British newspaper dismisses the head of Iberdrola as “arrogant” but admits his political skills. “He’s seen as a bit of a hero. He plays the role of a buccaneer and a freedom fighter, which isn’t really the case, but he is seen very much as politically neutral, which is unusual here and they love it.”

Early in the Nat West campaign, another commentator had noted that

“in terms of arrogance and single-mindedness, Fred is George [Mathewson , his chairman] with knobs on”. And a fund manager added: “Neither of them is known for their charisma.”

Perhaps a more charismatic leader builds a brand, concealing such human weaknesses as arrogance and ruthlessness. According to Jeff Schubert, who has studied board room tyrants, Napoleon worked diligently to convey his indispensability. Schubert summarises Napoleon’s remarks on his return from the ill-fated Moscow
In meeting with some senior officials, Napoleon’s first words were:

“Well, well, gentlemen, Fortune dazzled me. I let myself be carried away, instead of following the plan I had made and that I spoke of to you. … I had thought to gain in a year what only two campaigns could achieve. I have made a great blunder; but I shall have the means to retrieve it.”

Napoleon later commented to Caulaincourt: “The terrible
bulletin has had its effect, but I see that my presence is giving more pleasure than our disasters give pain.”

We will see whether Sir Fred’s presence as leader continues to give more pleasure than the financials give pain … Several commentators including Gwen Robinson were less sanguine.

Robert Mugabe and the Anatomy of Tyranny

June 27, 2008

Tyranny has a pattern of leadership that has been chronicled since ancient times. Tyrants exercise control by increasingly repressive methods, assisted by their close associates who become reluctantly or willingly complicit in their often criminal acts. Does theorising have any relevance to Zimbabwe’s situation today?

Jeff 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 in context, but in other respects are aspects of a common pattern of repressive behaviours, be they on battle fields or board rooms.

He considers Mugabe a prime example of a tyrant. Commenting for Leaders We Deserve he noted:

Tyranny is not only associated with “criminal acts”.. even those tyrants and lieutenants who do engage in criminal acts, do not necessarily see it that way – they often think that they are doing good, and that some brutality is thus justified …perceptions change over time – Mugabe was once broadly seen is a much more positive light. Time in power almost totally obliterates the ability to see any difference between one’s own interests and the interests of the country

BBC’s political editor John Simpson has continued his high profile career as foreign journalist in a series of clandestine reports from within Zimbabwe. Simpson has largely let the facts speak for themselves.

Simpson’s report on the elections [June 2008] is stark.

It has been done with great brutality, but Robert Mugabe has achieved an extraordinary turnaround here.. Back in March, when the first round of voting took place, he was humiliated by being beaten into second place in the presidential race, and by losing the parliamentary election outright. Now he’s the sole effective candidate in Friday’s presidential run-off, and he cannot fail to win with an overwhelming majority.

His opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai, has been completely outmanoeuvred. The outside world, which mostly sympathises with him, can do nothing whatever to help him


Simpson does not explain the moves which outflanked the MDC, only suggesting that Mr Tsvangirai had blundered in choosing to seek refuge in a European Embassy (the Dutch Embassy) rather than an African one. His report is one capturing his frustration.


The tyrant who has a long life is very skilful. The Overview of my book has some nice quotes on this – on Stalin etc — but I particularly like this one from Albert Speer which also highlights the role of caution in the success of the long-lived tyrant : “To the imagination of the outsider Hitler was a keen, quick, brutally governing dictator. It is difficult to believe that in reality he edged along hesitantly, almost fearfully. But that was the case.”

The dark side

The dark side of leadership has been an important if uncomfortable neck of the woods for theorists some while. Transformational theorists wrestled with the realization that a Hitler seemed to be manifesting many of the characteristics of the idealized transformational leader.

I am of the view that the idealization of leaders is a process which is well-explained by a socio-psychological treatment. By that I mean exploring the behaviours of the leader drawing on clinical models, particularly those exploring dysfunctional (psychotic) patterns. The behaviours are likely to impact on an organization. If we are talking about political and military leaders the impact may be on army, an orchestra a state or an entire continent. If we are talking cultural groups the impact of the dysfunctional leader may eventually weaken or destroy a media network, an orchestra, or a football team.

It should of course be added that there have been notorious examples of leaders who would be widely considered tyrannical, who had extremely negative effects on a wide range of people, but whose armies, orchestras, or organizations survived and even flourished beyond their tenures.

Mad, bad, dangerous?

According to Schubert

..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 individual businesses, business associations, sporting clubs, institutions and government bodies of all kinds’.

Schubert is not concerned with older questions of whether the tyrants are mad, bad, or simply dangerous. He argues simply that tyrants dominate, and there is always a cadre who become sucked into compliance, becoming part of an apparatus of repression, and a social system of the oppressed.

While the tyrant may become the primary symbol of the oppression, we may expect to find henchmen whose loyalty is in part because the fall of the tyrant will also signify their own downfalls.

The bigger picture

Simple isn’t it? On one side the tyrant and cronies. The country in economic ruin, and with an AIDs epidemic that has been driven out of the main story. The oppressed people, displaced, and brutalized.

Many suggestions: military intervention. More sanctions. More direct denunciation of Mugabe from South Africa, from China, from anywhere. Nelson Mandela on the eve of his ninetieth birthday to reclaim moral leadership.

Update: Within hours of this post being prepared, Nelson Mandela administered a magnificent and brief comment on ‘the tragic lack of leadership’ currently, in South Africa’s neighbour Zimbabwe. The elections under Zimbabwe go ahead in bizarre and repressive circumstances.

To be continued …

Was Castro the Leader America Deserved?

February 21, 2008

Fidel Castro steps down as President of Cuba. He is acknowledged as one of the major revolutionary leaders of the twentieth century. His iconic status presents him as a much-loved transformational figure, or a tyrant in the mould of a Hitler, Stalin, and Mao. Another perspective is that Castro’s regime was sustained by a field of situational forces, including the policies of successive American governments

Documentation on Castro’s leadership is extensive, and is now set to increase, following his departure from direct power. Even his sternest critics acknowledge that he has presided over transformational changes in Cuba to social conditions such as literacy and health-care. These achievements are regarded as the products of Castro’s social preoccupations. His critics point to restrictions on individual rights considered among the prized characteristics of democratic regimes. These include the freedom to travel, freedom of information (the internet, a free press) and the freedom to elect political opponents to the regime. For such critics, Cuba is among a diminishing handful of States clinging to an increasingly anachronistic version of Marxism.

The Schubert proposition

The Schubert proposition is that tyrants reproduce a universalistic pattern of repression, which maintains them in power through the brutal and brutalizing methods of the leader.

Along with other commentators, I have found the Schubert Proposition interesting and well-researched historically. It has the additional merit of testability.

Millman’s extension to Schubert’s proposition

The American Psychologist Robert Millman, in Substance Abuse: A Comprehensive Textbook, distinguishes between those who are born narcissistic and those who acquire it through the trappings of power. According to The Times

Almost every week we have news of a celebrity, lottery winner or City squillionare behaving badly, and some of them may be victims of what a psychiatrist from Cornell University Medical School has coined “acquired situational narcissism” (ASN).

The case of Fidel Castro, as well as Millman’s analysis of acquired situational narcissism, suggests an extension to Schubert’ s theorizing.

Schubert draws attention to the internal forces around the inner circle of a tyrant, and the emergence of a cadre of puppet-like sycophants. Millman looks to the external context.

Back to Lewin

I find myself going back to a hoary theory of social dynamics proposed by the great Kurt Lewin over half a century ago. Force Field Analysis proposes an equilibrium model of social structures.

We can examine Castro’s political survival in such terms. The no-engagement policies of the USA sustain the support provided from Castro’s supporters. For much of the period, the situation was simplified when there was a so-called balance of power. To the West there was America, pushing for change. To the East, the world-power that was the USSR was pushing back to sustain the regime.

The New York Times this week captured the essence of Lewin’s theory.

It was age and illness, not the free voice of the Cuban people, that finally led Fidel Castro to announce Tuesday [Feb 19th 2008] that he is stepping down as Cuba’s president after a mere 49 years of absolute power…Cuba is a closed, repressive society. The American policy of non-engagement and embargo provided Mr. Castro with a built-in excuse for his own failed economic policies and ruthless political repression. It made it easier for him to wall ordinary Cubans off from American friendships, political ideas and affluent lifestyles. It handed him a propaganda tool to discredit courageous Cubans who openly campaigned for greater democracy. Continuing this policy of isolation will only make it easier for whoever succeeds Mr. Castro to continue the same repressive policies.

Leadership reflections

Fidel Castro is more than a footnote in world history. Maybe his case will also contribute to our understanding of charismatic leaders and theories of narcissism.