Evil Leadership

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.


Hitler, upon becoming Chancellor of Germany

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.


One of the masses.

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.


We Need More Followers in Government


The ongoing shutdown of the United States government over the continuing budget resolution, and, later, the debt ceiling debate, has bred much discussion over the “leadership crisis” in congress. It’s true, of course, that the inability to perform the most basic  function of government — pass a budget — must constitute a some degree of failure, but I’m more forgiving of them for not being able to tackle the bigger problems of our day. Because we simply don’t allow them to.

In their book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky make the argument that leaders in our culture have a tendency to take on problems as their own to fix. After all, that’s what leaders do, right? We elect them to go to Washington and solve problems — and they usually go willingly. But Heifetz and Linsky also make the case that good leaders know that big problems are rarely technical problems to be fixed quickly; they’re problems that require everyone to adapt and overcome. And so, they say, good leaders “give the work back.” And I think that we often don’t allow congress to give the work back. We don’t want to participate; we just want it fixed in a very selfish way. In other words, we aren’t being good followers. We aren’t participating in a meaningful way.

An example of a big problem — probably the problem of our generation — is the reining in the national debt, and balancing the federal budget. As you can see from this New York Times infographic, nearly 50 percent of all federal spending goes toward either Social security, or Medicare. And this is an adaptive problem, one that we need to allow our leaders to face in an honest way, and one that we all need to be engaged in solving. Because it will take a change by all of us to overcome this issue.

This is the double-edged sword of follower-centered leadership theory. The fact that leadership is shared between leader and follower, in the simplest terms, means you’re not able to place all of the blame, or the credit, on the leader. Our elected leaders are not our champions, chosen for their excellence to take on our problems on their own. They’re our representatives, selected, according to social identify theory, as those most like us, who speak on behalf of an actively engaged followership.

We, as a nation, have to work on being better followers by sharing in the leadership process. When we look back at those figures who we identify as being among our best leaders, all of them asked for our engagement in solving the world’s problems. Kennedy challenged us to “ask what you can do for your country?” Lyndon Johnson declared, “We shall overcome.” Even Teddy Roosevelt was on the mark when he said, “The most successful politician is he who says what the people are thinking most often and in the loudest voice.”

Leaders as Dividers

We tend to think of leaders as being uniters — individuals who can use their breathtaking and often mysterious powers of influence over others to set the crowd in pursuit of a common goal. And this is, indeed, the dominant view of leadership: the effect of an individual on the group.

Consider for a moment, though, that leaders are, in fact, not generally uniters. Leaders are inherently divisive figures. They stand up, choose a side, chart a course, set the tone. And, in doing so, they bisect an issue, placing people squarely on one side or another. They demarcate. They make people choose a side.

In their book, “Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading,” Heifetz and Linsky make the case that leadership is a risky business. Leaders who are, in fact, leading, threaten people by challenging the status quo — challenging people’s values, challenging people’s understanding of the world, challenging people’s self-efficacy. Change is scary, but necessary. And, evolutionarily speaking, it’s also beneficial. Ideas are evolutionary and sometimes revolutionary; and I think successful leaders make themselves the personification of ideas — the face of change, if you will.


But this changes the nature of leadership then, doesn’t it? If leaders aren’t pipers sent to entice the crowd with their song and lead us toward unity, then what? I think, rather, they become markers, or bisectors that allow followers to choose a side. And this puts more power in the hands of the followers than previously considered.

Leadership scholar James Macgregor Burns wrote, “The key distinctive role of leadership at the outset is that leaders take the initiative. They address their creative insights to potential followers, seize their attention, and sparks further interaction. The first act is decisive because it breaks up a static situation and establishes a relationship.”

And this has implications for that relationship between leader and followers. When we take into consideration a more powerful followership, the relationship becomes less top-down, less dictatorial. Power becomes more diffuse, more follower-centered. People follow because they identify with the ideas that the leader personifies, not necessarily with the leader. The leader’s primary role is to define the issue and envision the future.

I think of Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the Law of Diffusion of Innovation, in which he says that, of the quarter million people who crowded the National Mall in August 1963 to hear Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. speak, none of them came for him. They came for themselves. The line had been drawn for so long between black and white; Dr. King redrew it between freedom and oppression, and they picked a side.