Hitler is the third rail of leadership discourse. He’s ever-present, always paralleling the discussion — the antithesis of leadership, it seems — but no one touches him. It’s fatal.
He’s mentioned in the Jackson and Parry text no fewer than 14 times. Typically, the tone is mockery — “I’m aware of no such courses as ‘How to be an Adolf Hitler for your organization’” — but the fact that he’s always there interests me.
As we struggle to define what leadership is, sometimes it is easier to say what it’s not. And the consensus is that Hitler is, decidedly, not leadership. But I don’t buy it.
For me, the study of leadership is the study of how things are accomplished by groups of willing individuals. Period. I give no regard to higher purpose or spiritual transformation. How do we mass together around a common purpose to accomplish some end? Whatever the answer to that question is, that is leadership. And so the notion that leadership must be positively transformational, mutually beneficial, and ethically pure — or it isn’t leadership —is a cop out.
And I think we ignore this, admittedly, darker side of leadership to our own peril. We focus instead on higher purposes and altruistic missions because that, of course, is the kind of thing we want our leaders to be engaged in. But I also believe it’s important to acknowledge the dark side of human nature, and to understand how it rears its head in the vile undertakings of civilization.
Hitler came to power not by coercion, as the book suggests. As a young man in World War I, he was a dispatch runner in an infantry division, and he drew cartoons. He later joined the local German Workers Party, attempted a coup d’état, and was jailed for a year. Hardly the stuff of a dictator.
But in 1933, amid a worldwide depression and a country still reeling from its devastating loss in World War I, he was appointed chancellor of Germany. He came to office by railing against the Treaty of Versailles, and articulating a clear vision for a hegemonic Germany — a restoration of the former glory of the Fatherland.
It was only after assuming this position of chancellor did Hitler have positional power, and thus the ability to coerce.
I offer this not as an aggrandizement of Hitler’s leadership, but as a reality check for those who would absolve the German people of responsibility. Hitler didn’t seize power from an innocent populace. Hitler’s power was given to him by followers who were motivated by their fears, prejudices, or fervent nationalism.
These motivators, I feel, are just as powerful, if not more powerful, than the positive ones we spend the bulk of our time studying. And so I don’t think of Hitler’s actions as the antithesis of leadership, but, rather, a very real and authentic style of leadership that reflects the ever-present darker side of our humanity.
It shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand simply because it’s evil. It should be studied precisely because it’s evil.