Is Autocracy The New Normal In Successful Leadership?

Is Autocracy The New Normal In Successful Leadership?


Leonard Zwelling

If we are to answer that question based on the success of nations, we might answer in the affirmative.

No nation has progressed more rapidly in the drive to prominence and dominance than has the People’s Republic of China. The nation is huge, both in land mass and in population. It is the second biggest economy on Earth and makes all kinds of stuff that everyone uses. Its merchandise fills Target and Wal-Mart.

China has a huge military and probably the largest navy in the world. China dwarfs our other authoritarian adversary, Russia, in everything but the production of oil and gas. These two autocratic nations, China and Russia, have to be viewed as successful given the breadth of their power and the width of the hold their leadership has on their populations, not to mention their possession of nuclear weapons. And China is spreading its wealth everywhere from Africa to Latin America. How are we to compete?

One of the major appeals of Donald Trump was the very veneer that he showed the world of manifest power bordering on autocracy. Unfortunately, like most things with Mr. Trump, it was mostly show biz. He was no tougher on Russia than China is and he seemed to cozy up to Putin. George W. Bush looked into Putin’s soul and Obama thought he could deal with the Russians then couldn’t even hold the red line he himself drew in Syria upon the use of chemical weapons. Our representative government cannot seem to keep up with the autocracies of our adversaries.

Perhaps it is a comparison of the process by which leaders arise that can give us a clue as to why the autocrats seem to be winning.

In Russia and China it is all subterfuge and inside fighting that leads to the top of the Communist Party in China or the throne in the Kremlin. You don’t just beat your opponents, you kill them. In the United States we have two-year contests driven by TV commercials and money to identify the one person who will occupy the White House. I am afraid that has become a process of regression to the mean in leadership ability and intelligence. You don’t get the best, you get the most average.

You cannot look at the past five Presidents and not come away wondering if our process of choosing leaders is broken. Maybe representative government as devised in the Constitution can’t work. Yet, before that it has. Men like Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan all showed the job could be done. But let’s remember TR, Truman and LBJ all ascended to the Oval Office upon the death of their predecessor and FDR and Reagan followed disastrous White House occupants and won going away. No hanging chads in their elections.

Having just watched Super Pumped about Uber and read Bad Blood about Theranos, I am beginning to think that the easiest place in American business to find psychopathology is in the corner office.

If we shift our gaze to academic medicine, does the same apply?

It might. The previous past president of MD Anderson was an unvarnished disaster and his successor is heading in the same direction with his non-strategy for the institution beyond “one MD Anderson” and being “nice” and “professional.” Many of the absolute best of MD Anderson’s past clinical and scientific leaders were not nice and sometimes not so professional either. But they discovered cures for cancer and that’s what made MD Anderson great—not niceness.

You have to wonder if malevolence is a pre-requisite for getting a leadership job and whether western institutions can tolerate this. We know Russia and China can. Can we?

The notion that one cannot be civil and still lead is ridiculous, but it seems that decorum is trumping ability in the executive suite. Like most things in life, balance is the key. No one was better at that balance than Dr. LeMaistre and Dr. Kripke.  They were always professional, but that didn’t mean they didn’t act decisively or aggressively. Were they always nice? No. Were they very effective? Yes. Did they scare people? At times. Did that make them better? It did.

It is not necessary to be authoritarian to be effective but you have to articulate a vision and have the will to make it a reality. That you cannot always be nice is a given.  You also may lose your temper sometimes. That’s being human and only humans can lead other humans. When the leader stops believing he or she is human, you get Putin or Xi.

Autocracy is not necessary for effective leadership. Vision and will are and they can arise from anywhere and often do. There is nothing inherent in representative democracy that precludes effective leadership. It just hasn’t worked out that way for the past thirty years in the United States. But there’s always hope.

2 thoughts on “Is Autocracy The New Normal In Successful Leadership?”

  1. Your last paragraph is hopeful! Thanks.
    In my military experience and then my medical career, leaders with high expectations, tough accountability, and employee recognition for achievements were my role models. It’s encapsulated in the trite term: “tough love.” When reality meets expectations, happiness may be reached. We need more face-to-face interactions and less confrontational emails, tweets, and strategic plans. My best bosses always pulled me to hold me accountable and to guide me. That kind of leadership is neither autocracy nor democracy. It is a stewardship of our institutions, guiding them in positive directions of discovery, education, and care for all. No self-aggrandizing BS!

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