A Terrible Leadership Style That Never Goes Away

Despite its remarkably poor record, dictatorship has staying power in politics and business.

Our topic from Monday morning’s news is a leadership style that never goes away, despite its remarkably poor record: dictatorship. While the relevant news is usually about nations, the issue arises often in business, as anyone with much organizational experience knows well.

-The crisis in Venezuela is worsening to the point that U.S. intelligence officials said over the weekend they believe violent insurrection is becoming likely. Food and even water are in desperately short supply, and electricity is so scarce that the government operates only two days a week; blackouts strike other areas often and without warning. Hospitals struggle to carry on; one effect is that infant mortality has increased by 100 times – not 100%, but 100 times – from three years ago. President Nicolàs Maduro has responded by claiming dictatorial powers, and on Friday he extended the self-declared state of emergency by another 60 days. On Saturday, he announced military exercises because his enemies, he says, are planning to orchestrate foreign intervention.

This is the classic dictator playbook when things are going badly. Maduro blames “foreign threats,” the U.S., and “the bourgeoisie” for Venezuela’s troubles. But the real problem is low oil prices in a market-hostile, centrally directed economy. Like most dictators, Maduro is doubling down rather than unshackling the forces that could stop the disaster. Analysts wonder how much longer he’ll stay in power.

-A raft of Chinese economic statistics over the weekend came in below expectations and below last year’s results. President Xi Jinping and other top leaders, whose instinct is to make things happen rather than let things happen, are apparently divided over what to do. Articles in the official People’s Daily last week featured Xi and an unnamed “authoritative person” criticizing China’s current policy of monetary and fiscal stimulus. But if there’s disarray at the top, there’s also agreement on at least one policy: intimidating researchers, stock brokers, and journalists into reporting only upbeat economic news by threatening them with prison or fines for doing otherwise. This also is classic. Dictators may be the only ones who don’t realize that squelching accurate information makes the problem worse, not better.

-And yes, a system of all-powerful rulers can give way gracefully to democracy over time. Exhibit A will be on view Wednesday, when Queen Elizabeth II opens Parliament. She will enter the House of Lords chamber, and an official will be sent to the House of Commons chamber, where the door will be slammed in his face, a reminder that since 1642 the monarch has been barred from entering the Commons while it’s meeting. The members will eventually walk down to the Lords to hear Her Majesty read the Queen’s Speech. But she only reads it; the government writes it. The people have all the power, the monarch virtually none. But she’s still called the queen, and the people love her.

Of course you’re not a dictator. But business leaders who are perceived by their followers to be gathering power to themselves, or blaming implausible sinister forces for problems, or punishing unwelcome accurate news in favor of happy talk, are heading down a well-worn path that leads nowhere good.

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