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Of Idiots and Autocrats

A Soviet-era statue of Vladimir Lenin in a main square in Simferopol, Crimea, Ukraine.
image credit: iStock / Joel Carillet

Democracy as a form of government doesn’t seem to be getting much respect these days.

Instead, autocracy seems to be gaining ground, increasingly demanding to be taken seriously on the stage of world affairs.

We frequently hear that democracy and Western values no longer work in the 21st century, that they are too slow, and too indulgent, and that countries and organizations need strong rulers whose hands are not tied by legions of bureaucrats, who are free to take decisive action rather than engage in endless discussion.

I can sometimes see how such arguments can appeal to folks in theory.

However, it is hard to find many examples of this sort of autocracy working well in practice.

As if he knew we were feeling a need for more real-world tests of these ideas, Russian President Vladimir Putin has mounted an attack on Ukraine in recent days – er, weeks – er, months – to give us all an example of how effectively a powerful autocrat can realize a decisive victory for the benefit of his followers and fellow countrymen.

As we all know by now, what must have sounded so good in theory has not been working out so well in practice.

But we don’t need to look to foreign leaders for our examples.

Consider how masterfully Donald Trump and his followers have launched their new social media platform.

Here’s how one sample headline sums it up:

Or look at how well the Republicans handled a recount of the votes cast in Arizona in the 2020 presidential election:

Or let’s see how convincingly a series of Republican governors in Texas have demonstrated their mastery of the myriad problems associated with border security:

Or take a peek at how our former president’s adviser and son-in-law smoothly persuaded wealthy Saudi potentates to sink money into his new investment firm:

Many people seem to get their ideas about the effectiveness of autocracy after becoming convinced that most big business successes are the works of masterful, all-powerful CEOs. (And the ever-popular business books ghost-written for these high-profile leaders no doubt help to perpetuate this fantasy.)

Steve Jobs was one such business leader who was often viewed as an autocrat who ruled with a decisive, take-no-prisoners approach to management.

Here’s one story relaying how Jobs ruthlessly imposed his brilliant strategic will on the employees at Apple:

Sony, with its appreciation for style, had gotten the famous designer Issey Miyake to create its uniform. It was a jacket made of rip-stop nylon with sleeves that could unzip to make it a vest. So Jobs called Issey Miyake and asked him to design a vest for Apple, Jobs recalled, “I came back with some samples and told everyone it would be great if we would all wear these vests. Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea.”

In truth, Jobs was a great believer in collaboration.

My model of management is the Beatles. The reason I say that is because each of the key people in the Beatles kept the others from going off in the directions of their bad tendencies.

They sort of kept each other in check. And then when they split up, they never did anything as good. It was the chemistry of a small group of people, and that chemistry was greater than the sum of the parts.

And this excerpt from a conversation with Walt Mossberg at a D8 conference punctures more holes in the popular image of the successful business leader ruling with a singular vision and an iron hand:

Jobs: What I do all day is meet with teams of people and work on ideas and solve problems to make new products, to make new marketing programs, whatever it is.

Mossberg: And are people willing to tell you you’re wrong?

Jobs: (laughs) Yeah.

Mossberg: I mean, other than snarky journalists, I mean people that work for…

Jobs: Oh, yeah, no we have wonderful arguments.

Mossberg: And do you win them all?

Jobs: Oh no I wish I did. No, you see you can’t. If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you, you have to let them make a lot of decisions and you have to, you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win, otherwise good people don’t stay.

Mossberg: But you must be more than a facilitator who runs meetings. You obviously contribute your own ideas.

Jobs: I contribute ideas, sure. Why would I be there if I didn’t?

And so here Jobs touches on several principles that seem to make for successful leaders in actual practice:

  • They should be qualified to contribute their own ideas.
  • They have to appreciate the value of having “wonderful arguments.”
  • They can’t use their position or authority to win those arguments.
  • People around them have to be able to tell them when they think they’re wrong (without fear of retribution).
  • Their organizations have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy.
  • The best ideas have to win, in order to motivate good people to stay and contribute.
  • Leaders have to recognize that they have blind spots – “bad tendencies” – and so they need a team of respected peers who will sometimes keep them in check.

Do any of these sound like the practices or principles of an autocrat? Want to wager that Vladimir Putin has any of these hanging on a wall at the Kremlin? Or Donald Trump, on the walls of Mar-A-Lago?

No, the truth is that, in practice, autocracy tends not to be very effective, because it runs counter to the principles that are needed to run almost any sort of modern organization.

Of course, this does not mean that democracy is a perfect form of government. As Winston Churchill observed:

Democracy is the worst form of government – except for all those others that have been tried.

And there are many forms of organizational structures and principles that embody what we might call egalitarian ideals to varying degrees, with details that vary considerably.

But then, that is one of the advantages of a democracy – it is a flexible ideal that can be adapted to different circumstances with diverse approaches.

Whereas autocracy is defined by its very insistence on having one person who is always right, and one set of approved ideas.

All facets of our modern lives, once we look beneath the often shiny surfaces, are complex, complicated affairs.

It may be tempting to believe that one confident, charismatic leader can solve all of our problems.

But such trust is generally misplaced, often with horrific, catastrophic consequences.

So let’s keep working to improve our democracies and our approaches to organizational decision-making.

But let’s not be duped into believing that the simple answer of autocracy will improve our lots.

As H. L. Mencken said:

There is always an easy solution to every human problem – neat, plausible and wrong.

Autocracy may sometimes sound like an easy, neat, plausible solution to all of our current problems.

Unfortunately, in actual practice, it almost always turns out to be wrong.

April 22, 2022