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Sunday, 20 June 2010

Does Leadership With Unbridled Power Lead to Fear?

I had insomnia last night so reverted to my usual remedy - listening to the radio on very quietly.  At around 3am it was the BBC World Service with a programme about the 65th birthday today of Aung San Suu Kyi, the remarkable de facto leader of the Democracy movement in Burma.

For me the most significant comment came from Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that although the Burmese Generals' regime was armed to the teeth, they were virtually powerless and paralysed by fear, the fear of one extraordinary and beautiful lady whom they had kept in virtually solitary confinement for nearly two decades.

It gave me some cause to ponder on the apparent link between unbridled power and fear and how the Burma situation is a metaphor for business and, indeed, life in general.

Certainly we have had examples of unbridled political power in the past century in Europe, Africa and Asia, all of which regimes lasted only a relatively few years before collapsing.   All of these regimes maintained their power through the generation of fear while at the same time, being fearful themselves of any opposition to their methods.

Some business leaders have in the same sense used their power to engender an authoritarian "top down" regime in the organisation, generating fear and consequently an atmosphere of poor communications and a perceived need to keep bad news away from the top.

Once again, these businesses, often run by financial managers, have shown that this management style works for a while and delivers short term profitability.  However, these organisations are usually marked by their high staff turnover and generally low morale with a consequent decline in longer term performance.   Indeed, their star often declines in much the same way as the authoritarian political regimes.

So what is the answer?  Great leadership is a facet of the human condition that demands humility as well as charisma such that people follow the leader almost without conscious consideration but in the secure knowledge that it is right for them.  

It has been said in the past (and I don't know the attribution) that : "The people want me to be their leader so I must follow them".   That wonderful woman in Burma is a classic example.  May she have a happy birthday in the knowledge that she is looked upon as a supreme example of selfless dedication to a cause and leadership par excellence.

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