The great dictators

Recent biographies of Mussolini, Stalin and Hitler explore
their motivation and impact as leaders. While there is little doubt the Second
World War dictators were masterful at leading the masses, have they got
something to teach today’s HR professionals about management? Paul Simpson
examines their success and reviews the biographies

Now that Attila The Hun has authored his own book full of management tips,
albeit posthumously, it cannot be long before the world’s bookshelves are
graced by such bestsellers as Seven Habits Of Highly Effective Dictators and
Joseph Stalin’s Six Steps To Conflict Resolution.

The suggestions may seem facetious, but there’s a serious point. Monstrous
as they might have been, stories about the rise and fall of the world’s
dictators may tell us something about ourselves, even – perish the thought – the
way the companies we work in are run.

But let’s not be silly about this; Hitler didn’t fail because he was a poor
man manager. He failed because he made it clear to most of the world that the
alternative to fighting him was slavery or death. However, sometimes the
extreme nature of these regimes makes it easier to spot behaviours that could
be submerged in other more peaceable organisations. Hitler, Mussolini and
Stalin were alike in their belief in their own greatness and their pathological
reluctance to hear or accept bad news. Now be honest: doesn’t one or both of
those traits describe chief executives or bosses you’ve worked with?

The world is never short of new biographies on Hitler, Stalin or, to a
lesser degree, Mussolini, for the simple reason that we are fascinated by what
drives men to such extremes and marks them out as different. But if you read
the latest crop of biographies there are moments when they don’t seem that
different to the rest of us or, even, to other managers – as uncomfortable as
it might sound. Bruce Pauley’s comparative study Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini
makes this point most clearly.

In purely selfish terms, only Stalin can be said to have succeeded to any
great extent in that he remained in power until a not-untimely death. Stalin’s
experience contrasts with that of Ho Chi Minh, the founding father of Communist
Vietnam, who was a low-key leader who encouraged collective decision-making
and, although he was involved in three major wars, tried to avoid conflict.

His regime endures today, but his low-key approach may have led rivals,
encouraged by the Chinese, to regard him as weak. In 1957, his mistress (and
mother of his son) was raped and murdered by the head of the Vietnamese secret
police – a crime no other dictator would have left unpunished – and by the time
he died in 1969 he was regarded as ‘Uncle Ho’ by his country’s younger leaders.

That fate never befell Chairman Mao, who had his own peculiar approach to
human resources. Fortunately, the Chinese leader’s theory, that it didn’t
matter if his country lost half a billion people in a nuclear war because they
would still have half a billion left and would therefore be the winners, was
never put to the test.

Adolf Hitler
The management textbooks: Hitler Hubris and Nemesis by Ian Kershaw (Penguin)
ISBNs 0140288988, 0140272399

His life in one paragraph

Austrian good for nothing who failed at almost everything he’d done, apart
from being a soldier, until he was 30. Born the same year as Stalin (1889), he
rose to power in circumstances still debated today and presided over one of the
most infamous regimes the world has known. After taking on Britain, the US and
the USSR simultaneously, he was defeated and killed himself in a Berlin bunker
in 1945.

What kind of leader was he?

Of all the dictators, Hitler scores highest measured against the definition
of what makes a leader, as opposed to a manager, by Abraham Zaleznik, the
professor of leadership at Harvard Business School. Hitler did articulate a
shared vision, set a personal example regarding the values inherent in that
vision, took risks in the interest of that vision (although not, ultimately, in
the interests of the collective), and motivated exceptional performance by
appealing to the values and emotions of followers.

He inspired with his confidence, determination, and persistence and engaged
in symbolic behaviour such as acting as a spokesperson for the collective.
Historians still debate whether Hitler did what he did because the German
people lived in fear or were, to use the title of a recent controversial book,
Hitler’s willing executioners.

Yet, in his sinister fashion, he did inspire a part of the German nation and
was, largely, popular until 1939 when he invaded Czechoslovakia and the masses
realised that, contrary to his protestations, he really did want war.

He took care to live up to his image, not wearing glasses but reading
speeches in large print, being photographed in his uniform and refusing to
accept the salary offered his chancellor – an effective PR gimmick – although
the Mein Kampf royalties kept him rich.

The image of the Fuhrer working tirelessly away at his desk is fixed in the
minds even of his critics but this image of the ultimate Type A workaholic
isn’t, Kershaw makes clear, the whole truth. Hitler often retreated to his
villa in Berchtesgaden to hide from his ministers. Behind that image of a
ruthless efficient regime there was, above all, chaos, a vast chaos created by
Hitler’s sheer laziness and need to be the indispensable arbiter in a
hopelessly disorganised and disunited government.

How successful was he?

Like many charismatic leaders in business, Hitler was immensely successful,
by his own estimates, in the short term. But his growing conviction that
providence was speaking through him (and that anyone who argued with him was
wrong) and his style of setting subordinates at each other’s throats by giving
them the same task ultimately undermined the regime.

His goals were clear in peacetime (although concealed from world leaders and
even the German public) and even, when successful, in war, but not from 1941
onwards. His twin goals, defeating the Allies and exterminating the Jews, were
in the short term incompatible because they were both a huge drain on finite
resources. His brutal attitude to the conquered people of eastern Europe forced
them to resist to survive. And, like too many leaders, he fell for the fallacy
of his own infallibility, a belief inspired, initially, by his knack for
outguessing his cautious generals.

Like Mussolini, he had an absolute gift for appointing the wrong people.
Most of his inner circle were fawning incompetents or mad, the obvious
exception being Albert Speer, who revived Germany’s war economy. Hitler’s death
in a Berlin bunker was no chance occurrence; it’s the finale he would have
scripted. Like many a disappointed leader, he blamed his people, saying they
didn’t deserve to win.

How good is the book?

Kershaw’s two-volume biography bids for definitive status with its sheer
bulk and accumulation of detail. Kershaw is at his best delineating the Third
Reich’s labyrinthine decision-making process and Hitler’s hold on Germany. His
reticence about Hitler’s personal life lets him down as the Fuhrer remains,
ultimately, a one-dimensional monster.

Benito Mussolini
The management textbook: Mussolini by R.J.B. Bosworth (Arnold) ISBN 0340731443

The life in one paragraph

Socialist agitator and journalist turned patriot after the outbreak of World
War I who took over power as fascist leader in 1922. Sealed disastrous alliance
with Hitler in 1939 which led Italy to war and defeat as the Nazis’ allies and
ended with Mussolini’s execution by his own countrymen, in 1945. Il Duce was
62.

What kind of leader was he?

Mussolini was the ultimate tactical manager who couldn’t spell the word
strategy, let alone come up with one. He was also the ultimate ‘do as I say’
manager – a flaw exacerbated by his habit of saying different things to people
about the same subject on the same day. He once said: "My ministers are
like light bulbs I switch on and switch off", and he usually switched off
the more gifted ones. He was a conscientious, if hopeless, leader who liked to
make sweeping statements about what Italy must do but changed the subject when
anyone asked how such goals were to be achieved.

Il Duce concentrated power in his own hands (in 1926 he was prime minister,
head of three government departments, all the armed forces and the fascist
militia) for fear of potential rivals, but he would not delegate. The result
was that instead of reforming the Italian state as he had pledged, he paralysed
most of it.

If you take Zaleznik’s list of leadership attributes, Mussolini only really
succeeded at the symbolic stuff – he probably never inspired an exceptional
performance from anybody, for example.

How successful was he?

Even judged by his vague goals to transform Italian society and improve its
position in the international pecking order, Mussolini was a complete failure.
The Italian economy, though, may have outperformed its rivals in terms of
growth and full employment until 1938 after which, in its most critical period,
it declined. His failure is underlined by the fact that, alone of the ‘great’
dictators, he was deposed not just by his own people but by the leaders of his
own party who voted their lack of confidence in him, giving the king the excuse
to sack him.

How good is the book?

Bosworth is too busy arguing with other historians to offer massive insight
into Mussolini. At times, arguments about theories overwhelm the personal
detail about the dictator’s life. You get a much better sense of Mussolini from
Denis Mack Smith’s biography Mussolini (Phoenix) ISBN 1842126067, which is
still available. A pity because Bosworth does underline how every sin of
fascist Italy is blamed squarely on Il Duce, a man who, Bosworth compellingly
suggests, may never have believed in any cause greater than his own
self-aggrandisement and seemed, ultimately, disappointed by the human resources,
that is the Italian people, with whom he tried to change history. Mack Smith’s
book also serves as a wonderful cautionary tale of corporate life.

Joseph Stalin
The management textbook: Stalin by Edvard Radzinsky (Sceptre) ISBN 0340680466

His life in one paragraph

Born in Georgia in 1889, Stalin grew up in an abusive home, and soon gave up
on his childhood ambition to be a monk (to mum’s eternal disapproval) to become
a revolutionary. His contribution to the 1917 Bolshevik revolution was
negligible and when he succeeded Lenin in power he felt obliged to punish or
destroy all those who had played a bigger part than him. Initiated purges which
killed or imprisoned millions and have never been rationally explained but led
the Soviet Union to victory over Hitler. Died of a stroke in 1953 before he
could unleash a final purge.

What kind of leader was he?

Psychologically astute, possessed of a certain psychopathic charm, possibly
afflicted by the horrendous beatings he suffered as a child and the suicide of
his wife (a tragedy he would have felt more deeply because of his own sense
that he might have contributed to it), Stalin was the ultimate eminence grise.

Although his working day didn’t typically start until about midday, he
understood the power of detail far more than any of his rivals and had the
self-discipline to sift through tons of paperwork to ensure that each one of
his goals was being met. His ego was even larger than the empire he ruled over
– unlike Hitler and Mussolini, he got his name inserted into the national
anthem. Ultimately, the regime he created had no real values other than fear of
(and slavish devotion to) the dictator referred to by his uneasy colleagues as
‘the old man’ – a lesson every manager who manages by fear (albeit a milder
fear) should learn.

How successful was he?

Judged purely by his own selfish terms, extraordinarily successful. He
seized power in the mid-1920s, expanding his power base (and his regime) until
his death in 1953. The purges protected his position, representing in extreme
homicidal form the kind of change that runs through many organisations when a
new leader arrives.

Yet the very structure he murderously created began to fall apart while he
was alive. His subordinates, partly in fear for their lives, probably left him
to die on the floor of his dacha after he had had a stroke.

By 1956 his heirs had repudiated him in one of the biggest U-turns in
political history. Stalin’s contribution to political theory is on a par with
Luxembourg’s contribution to the history of naval warfare and, with the old man
gone, nothing underpinned the regimes of Brehznev and Chernenko except brazen
self-interest.

Stalin is still credited with defeating the Nazis, although you could argue
that he helped Hitler by purging the Soviet Army’s officer corps and ignoring
repeated invasion warnings. Fighting for his own survival and that of his
regime, he gave the generals an unusual degree of autonomy. But as soon as
victory was achieved, he purged millions more in a bid to keep down the
populace and his subordinates.

He could be charming, sensitive and brutal, a man who liked to get his
subordinates drunk in the hope they might incriminate themselves, who had a
habit of ringing his old Bolshevik pals to wish them well after signing their
death warrants.

What he failed to do, to return to Zaleznik’s criteria, was to instill any
values but fear in the collective and so, ultimately, he – as much as Gorbachev
or Yeltsin – made the break up of the Soviet Union inevitable.

How good is the book?

A revelation. Takes the reader inside Stalin’s reasoning (if one can use
that word) in a way none of the other books quite manage to do. This biography
is a fascinating portrait of how one man accumulated unprecedented power and
kept it until his death. It also at times, in its detail of the subordinates
endlessly shuffling for favour or sheer survival, reads like a dark Kafkaesque
fable of 20th century corporate life.

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