Democracies, autocracies and leaders
I used the term “pagan politics” in a recent post entitled Man, War and Savagery. I’ve received a few requests to expand on what I meant by that. I wrote that I feared we might be entering a period of pagan politics when describing the atrocities that have taken place in various wars, including and especially the ongoing Russian war with Ukraine. It was my assessment of how the heads of countries and groups had shown no mercy toward their adversaries, especially civilians. In retrospect, it may not have been the best term to describe tyrants, despots and dictators who rule their people ruthlessly. Brutal politics carried out by brutal people might have been a better way to express this. We could go far back in time to find examples of these (hence the term pagan), but some of the best examples are individuals from the 20th century.
Brutal people, brutal politics
Hitler, Lenin, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin were known for their totalitarian rule, radical ideologies, brutal politics and actions as well as for the oppression and bloodshed they caused. They plunged their respective countries into dystopian nightmares and were brutal individuals with little regard for human life and decency. Autocratic governments led by strongmen and tyrants behave that way. And that brings me to the problem. The central challenge of the present and the future is the struggle between democratic and autocratic governments. It appears that the world is grouping into countries that adhere to and defend democracy and the rule of law and countries led by strongmen and tyrants that seek to end these values. Are the proverbial barbarians at the gate?
Political toxicity and imperial hubris
There’re modern-day leaders who long to be strongmen. Emperor-like leaders who focus more on their own wealth or power so much that they are no longer leaders but tyrants. Individuals like Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, Alexander Lukashenko, Bashar al-Assad, etc. The list goes on and on. These are individuals who eventually start to believe the world is against them. The more power they accumulate, the more paranoid they become and the more they shut out people, in favor of an increasingly small inner circle of “yes people” who’re afraid to tell the tyrant the truth. They never take responsibility for failures but instead point fingers at others and seek scapegoats for their mistakes. In the Putin collective “echo chamber,” where political toxicity and imperial hubris abound, advisers have learned not to bring bad news to the “czar’s” table.
Ignorant or unwilling
Putin’s inner circle of advisers are either ignorant of the true situation or unwilling to challenge his assumptions. It’s entirely possible that some individuals lower down in Russia’s security establishment thought the invasion would fail but their concerns didn’t reach the top. Contrast this with what former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell wrote in “The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell.” He said, “the commander in the field is always right and the rear echelon is always wrong, unless proven otherwise.” Great leaders understand that those at the top have all the authority but rarely have all the information, while those at the bottom have all the information but rarely have any of the authority.
Strategic narcissism leads to strategies and policies that are based on what the decision-makers prefer, rather than on the reality of what the situations require. This is a case of defining problems as they would like them to be and assumptions that go unchallenged by their own advisors or by outside powers. It’s wishful thinking. Almost as bad is warning that you’ll take action if a specific tripwire is crossed and then failing to back it up. In 2012, President Obama declared that the use of chemical weapons to “murder civilians was a red line,” yet didn’t respond when the Syrian regime used them multiple times. Did this gap between rhetoric, policy and action on the part of the US embolden Putin to annex Crimea and invade eastern Ukraine? Did Putin conclude that the US would not respond to aggression in 2014 and perhaps not even in 2022? Did Putin count on America’s chaotic domestic divisions to weaken its response to Russia’s aggression? I’ll leave that for the reader to ponder. Personally, I find it strange that leadership theory praises humility, yet narcissists seem to be over-represented in leadership positions. We see hollow but optimistic leaders who talk a big game but produce little results. That’s not what we need today.
When it comes to the debate on groups and individuals, there are those who believe that we should always put the group first and those who believe we should always place the individual first. While both can be right, depending on the context, I favor leaders who’re willing to make sacrifices for the good of the group. People who place the well-being of others before themselves even if it means they suffer. The type of leader I’m referring to here has the courage to do the right thing and knows when to break the rules. These individuals know that the popular decision isn’t always the right decision, and the right decision isn’t always the popular decision.
Not a free pass
Leadership isn’t a free pass to do less; it’s a responsibility to do more. It requires hard work, energy and time. It’s a commitment to your people. We need leaders who understand that leadership is a constantly moving target and that the perfect solution one day can be totally wrong the next. Great leaders will sacrifice their interests for the good of those in their care. When asked why Marines are so good, an anonymous marine general replied, “officers eat last.” I’d like to leave you with a quote from Andrei Sakharov, a Soviet nuclear physicist, dissident, Nobel laureate and activist for disarmament, peace and human rights, that I believe is spot on. “A country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors.” Are there any names that come to mind today?