“Show, don’t tell.” This is common advice for writers, and for marketers, too. I found myself thinking about “showing” this week as I made a mental list of the enlightening projects I have worked on. The Encyclopedia of Leadership is one. Here’s an article from it on “Tyrannical Leadership” that is all too relevant right now.

Tyranny, as this analysis suggests, is the noxious result of the compounding of a malignant narcissistic personality structure and absolute power. To avoid such an outcome, it is best to prevent a person with the proclivities noted here from ever coming to power. However, after tyrants have attained high position, their threat to the rest of the world outside of their immediate domain will depend on their command over resources as well as the ability of others to mobilize against the tyrants. Compromises with tyrants will not work; compromises will only whet their appetite for acting out their grandiose fantasies.

You’ll find the entire article below.

“Tyrannical Leadership” from Berkshire Publishing’s Encyclopedia of Leadership. Ed. George R. Goethals, Georgia J. Sorenson, and James MacGregor Burns. Vol. 4. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2004. Click to view or purchase. For customized collections of material from the Encyclopedia of Leadership, contact cservice@berkshirepublishing.com.

Tyrants, as the Greek philosopher Plato defined them in The Republic, are rulers who look to their own advantage rather than the well-being of their subjects and in the process are apt to employ extreme and cruel tactics. The history of tyrants, moreover, is a product of their character and situation. Acting on base impulses, the tyrant is seduced by “all the pleasure of a dissolute life . . . At last this lord of the soul, having Madness for the captain of his guard, breaks out into a frenzy; and if he finds in himself any good opinions or appetites . . . and there is in him any sense of shame remaining . . . to these better principles, he puts an end . . . until he has purged away temperance and brought in madness to the full” (Plato, Book 9).

Tyrannical leadership flourishes in certain kinds of situations. The creator of a new state, as the Italian political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli argues in The Prince, or even the ruler in an established state who comes to power outside the usual selection methods, must at least act like a tyrant. Contemporary experience with German Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin suggests that the new prince, with the capacity to act like a tyrant, is most apt to come to power in unstable or changing political and social conditions, where the populace harbors deep-seated resentments or grievances based on historical or social events. The likelihood is increased in situations where people are accustomed to authoritarian rule and rigid social hierarchies. The rise and dominance of Ida Amin of Uganda, Jean‑Betel Bokassa of the Central African Republic, and other African leaders suggest a related but somewhat different possibility. Transitions from colonial to local rule, in which the local populace is poorly educated with little experience in democracy, offer a fertile breeding ground for the tyrant. The dynamics of survival and ascendancy in periods of struggle between competing groups give an advantage to the daring, the ruthless, and the corrupt.

Whatever the situation, a special kind of person is required to secure and turn power into near-absolute rule. Often such persons make grandiose claims for themselves and their missions. In antiquity, as the Greek historian Herodotus noted, the Persian Kings Cyrus and Xerxes saw themselves as having godlike qualities. In contemporary times, both Stalin and Hitler projected themselves as creators of wholly new social orders. Hitler, for example, after the surrender of Czechoslovakia in 1939, predicted that he would be known as “the greatest German in history.” His escapes from attempts on his life were interpreted as signs of his chosen role. He claimed to have a superior knowledge of history, music, and practically every field of endeavor. Shortly before his suicide, he exclaimed, “What an artist dies in me!” Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, too, in the various monuments he built in Iraq has suggested that he was the successor of Hammurabi, the great lawmaker; Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon; Sargon the Great, as well as Ali, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, revered by the Shiite sect as its founder.

Would-be tyrants claim to possess not only godlike powers, but also the ability to do whatever it takes to achieve and consolidate their position. Extensive, overlapping spy networks are constructed to control the populations over which they seek dominance. Alliances are formed and changed as new opportunities arise. Potential rivals are eliminated from their ruling circle.

These tactics are evident in the actions of several contemporary tyrants. As Stalin neared his pinnacle of power, for example, he shifted alliances to eliminate would-be competitors. First he was nominally allied with the Communist Party leaders on the left. He then eliminated those on the left by joining with those on the right. With the left destroyed, he turned on the right, thereby effectively eliminating his competition. By 1929 he had few remaining rivals. Eventually, all of his major competitors were murdered.

After Hitler had gained office, he, too, rid himself of all possible competitors. During the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934 he oversaw the killing of hundreds of associates and followers. Murdered on his orders were SA (sturmabteilung, stormtrooper) leader Ernst Rohm, General von Schleicher, Hitler’s predecessor as chancellor, and Gregor Strasser, who had broken with Hitler at the end of 1932. As for former Hussein, the moment he had secured the presidency in Iraq, he overtly marked for elimination, on trumped-up charges at a party conference, all potential competitors. Later, military heroes who might challenge his preeminence as a military strategist were fired or killed. In 1982, for example, he executed approximately three hundred high‑ranking officers – along with a small number of party officials

After they have attained supreme power, tyrants typically employ all the resources at their disposal to cover up any embarrassments from their past. In antiquity, the Roman Emperor Maximin put to death many who had supported him in his climb to power because they knew of his barbarian origin. Stalin eradicated almost everyone who had known him during his days in Georgia. He ordered the elimination from written histories and documents of the names of top party officials who had run afoul of him. Hitler went so far as to order the destruction in 1930 of Dollersheim, the small town in Austria where his father, Alois, had been born. No father had been named on Alois’s birth certificate, making Alois an illegitimate offspring.

Not everyone, of course, is psychologically inclined to kill, deceive, and cheat to secure power. Tyrants’ ability to easily do whatever they see as necessary in their reach for absolute power is in part a reflection of a particular character structure. The cultural values they inherit are to be used to gain power, not to curtail any of their activities. Their ties to other people are fragile, subject to being cut as tyrants see political necessity.

Stalin’s ability to outmaneuver the other old Bolsheviks in the mid‑1920s was due, in part, to his lack of a commitment to any one idea of what communism might achieve. Lacking genuine ideological grounding, he could tack to the right or the left as it met his needs. Lacking genuine emotional ties to others, he could destroy even close associates in his pursuit. His first targets in the great purges of the 1930s – Nikolai Bukharin, Sergei Kirov, Serge Ordzhonikidze – were “friends” who had joined his family on picnics and cruises.

Hitler, too, was unanchored to any sort of conventional morality. In his book Mein Kampf he states that existence of a conscience is a Jewish trait. Deception, as he saw it, is a sign of strength. The closer he got to someone, he bragged on one occasion, “the more he lied.” Indeed, he found it funny when he heard that a casket had been presented to his foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, in 1943, filled with all the treaties that Ribbentrop had negotiated (which were then ignored by Hitler). Hitler laughed until tears came to his eyes. Hitler’s personal relationships, too, were shallow. Needing people around him, he could always command an audience. However, he had no real friends. Although Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister of armaments, spent “endless time “ with the Fuhrer (leader), Speer testified that Hitler never really opened up to him. In the autumn of 1943 Hitler remarked to Speer, “One of these days I’ll have only two friends left, Fraulein Braun and my dog” (Speer 1970, 360). Somewhat paradoxically, the character structure that gives would-be tyrants many advantages in the struggle for power can later become a source of personal and political vulnerabilities. Their grandiosity and their self-idealization mask an underlying sense of inferiority. Lacking genuine self-confidence, they are sensitive to competition, cannot tolerate criticism, and have difficulties in dealing with political reversals.

Thus, Dionysius I (430<N>367 bce), the tyrant of Syracuse, turned with rage on Plato when the latter noted that tyrants lack justice and are miserable. According to the Greek biographer Plutarch, Dionysius tried to have Plato killed on his return voyage to Greece, or at least sold into slavery. The Persian king Cambyses sent his brother Smerdis home from the field of battle in Egypt after Smerdis had shown that Smerdis was the only one who could draw a bow. Soon thereafter, Cambyses had Smerdis murdered.

As for Stalin, when he heard of anyone opposing him or saying negative things about him, he would undergo a psychological transformation. According to his daughter Svetlana, Stalin would feel completely betrayed and count that individual as his enemy, no matter how long or deep his relationship with that person might have been. Stalin also was jealous of any friendship that might develop among members of his entourage or in the politburo (the chief policy-making and executive committee of a Communist party). To avoid such friendships, he would either provoke a quarrel or separate the individuals involved through transfers to new postings.

Hitler, too, found any sort of criticism, competition, or defeat intolerable. As was Stalin, Hitler was threatened by superior people. Except for Speer, Hitler’s inner circle was composed mostly of people to whom he could feel superior: He routinely made fun of intellectuals. Even his ability to sway crowds did not lead to genuine self-confidence. While rehearsing a speech, for example, he would ask his valet if he “really looked like the Fuhrer.” Even opposition from would-be victims enraged him. When Sir Horace Wilson, a British government official, read Hitler a letter relaying the Czech‑Slovak rejection of his latest demands on that country Hitler leaped up, shouted that the negotiations were pointless, and rushed to the door. When he suffered military reversals in Moscow, in his offensive in the Caucuses, or at Stalingrad, Hitler placed the blame on his generals. During the final days of the war Hitler was enraged that the Luftwaffe (air force) could not operate because of weather factors. He blamed the setbacks on the western front on treachery by military commanders.

When a leader with near-absolute power has these three qualities – grandiosity, ruthlessness, and insecurity – he or she can become dangerous to others. Massive cruelties that serve no obvious political end are apt to ensue. In antiquity, Antonius Caracalla, the son of the Roman Emperor Severus, destroyed Alexandria and executed so many people in Rome that its population was significantly reduced. Commodus, the son and heir of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, allowed his soldiers to plunder the populace without restraint. On the contemporary scene Stalin caused the deaths of millions of Soviet citizens – whether through the agricultural collectivization drive in the late 1920s or the purges of party and military leadership in the 1930. Hitler’s mass exterminations included 100,000 Germans who had been deemed “unworthy,” 6 million Jews, and 9 or 10 million others who were gassed or shot or beaten to death or died through starvation or overwork. Saddam Hussein in 1987 and 1988 killed thousands of Kurds with chemical weapons. They were mainly noncombatant civilians who included women and children.

These cruelties, moreover, may be less based on political necessity than on the malice of tyrants – even their twisted pleasure in seeing others suffer. Stalin personally ordered and signed tens of thousands of death sentences, instructed operatives on how to torture his victims, and watched the show trials of the mid-1930s from a darkened room with evident enjoyment. As for Hitler, one of his favorite pastimes was to pretend that he had discovered some malfeasance by a member of his entourage only to announce, as his target sweated in fear, that he was only joking. Later, one of his favorite entertainments was to watch movies showing the death agonies of the men who had participated in the assassination attempt against him in July 1944 as they swung from piano-wire nooses strung from meat hooks overhead. Albert Speer claimed that Hitler wanted to see the films over and over again. Saddam Hussein even permitted the taping of his performance at the infamous Baath Party meeting on 22 July 1979, where he personally called off the names of the purported traitors from a list. Each man marked was escorted out of the room to face his demise, while Hussein puffed on a cigar. In one instance, he announced the first name of one person and then changed his mind, moving on to the next man on the list.

By engaging in these cruelties, tyrants create new enemies for themselves, heightening the need for future defensive actions. Saddam Hussein was quite explicit about this dynamic. Shortly after assuming the presidency he told a guest that he was sure many people were plotting to kill him, noting that he had assumed power with his own plots against his predecessors.

The acquisition of near-absolute power not only enables tyrants to put into play their more malevolent promptings, but also tempts them to strive for the grandiose fantasies of which they had heretofore only dreamed. Constrained in their rise to power by the need to pay homage to conventional values and attend to the interests and needs of others, tyrants find that the consolidation of their position gives them more freedom to act as they please. Indeed, their early successes are apt to reinforce their feeling of omnipotence, convincing them that they no longer need to operate with care.

This fact is clear in Hitler’s operations. By the late 1930s Hitler controlled every aspect of German life, and his subsequent conquests of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, France, Denmark, Norway, and Belgium seemed to offer the proof that in Europe he could create the empire of his imagination.

However, Hitler dreamed of even greater conquests. In Mein Kampf he argued that the Aryan race would create the greatest empire known in the modern world. The British, as a Teutonic people, he mused, were potential collaborators in this enterprise. After the quick victory over France, Hitler’s self-confidence swelled. In February 1941 he ordered preparations for the conquest of India, with his armies going through Russia and Iran and north Africa. In the summer of 1942 he ordered the invasion of the Soviet Union, a three-pronged drive toward Leningrad, Moscow, and Stalingrad, as well as a move through the Caucuses to secure oil wells to the south.

In these latter operations he had gone too far. The decision to divide his troops on the southern front and the Russian winter contributed to the encirclement and surrender of German troops at Stalingrad. When the United States joined the British and the Soviet Union, Hitler’s fate was all but sealed.

Reversals of a major magnitude, moreover, may contribute to a certain amount of psychological fragmentation. After the German attack on the Soviet Union, Stalin was clearly incapacitated for days, leaving it to others to make crucial military decisions. As Hitler’s enemies combined against him, he protected himself with increasingly wild fantasies. At times he thought the U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British leader Winston Churchill would join Germany to fight Russia or that British prisoners of war would voluntarily join the Nazis to fight Russia. In April 1945, as Germany was being closed in from the west and the east, Hitler fantasized that the Allied coalition would disintegrate and that a disenchanted Stalin would open negotiations with Germany. At the end Hitler was still making plans for massive military action, with large numbers of nonexistent fully‑equipped troops reinforcing the frontlines.

Reversals are likely to lead to the increasingly capricious behavior of tyrants, further contributing to a diminution of their capacity for rational decision making. Stalin would issue orders at any time of day or night; agendas switched in accord with his whims. During Stalin’s latter years in office, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev would later recall, “the government virtually ceased to function” for months at a time.

Hitler showed similar behavior during the waning days of World War II. He delivered endless monologues at the dinner table on subjects, such as his early days in Vienna, permitting no discussion of current events and the military situation. Erratic behavior would alternate with a frenzied dedication to detail; fear of failure would be followed by convictions that he would win the day. Even a month before his suicide, Hitler remained firmly convinced of his destiny, giving the impression that he was oblivious to events around him. At one point he even ordered the German politician Heinrich Himmler to kill all prisoners of war, an order that Himmler did not obey.

Early in their careers tyrants often purchase some relief from inner turmoil and ambiguity by dividing the world into friends and enemies, good and evil – projecting a rejected side of the self onto an exterior foe. For Stalin the progress and the good of the people were identified with the Communist Party, of which he became the final authority. Evil was laid at the door of the external enemy – the capitalist classes, the states they controlled, and the agents they had in his own Soviet camp.

However, Stalin ended up making poor judgments about whom he might trust and whom he should suspect. In signing a nonaggression pact with Germany, he ignored all the evidence in Mein Kampf that Hitler saw the Soviet Union as his major enemy. When the United States, the British, and even the German ambassador in Moscow tried to warn Stalin in the summer of 1941 of the coming German attack, Stalin simply treated these warnings as enemy propaganda. Later he decided, quite incorrectly, that Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was a U.S. agent. However, he trusted Lavrenty Beria, the head of his secret police – the one man who could hardly conceal his glee as Stalin lay dying.

As for Hitler, his image of the Jews provided him with a model for his own aspirations for a conquest of the world, an explanation of some of his own failures, as well as a target on which he could project his own disassociated fantasies. The goal of the Jews, as he wrote in a 1924 pamphlet, was to “master the world and then destroy it.” Turning their policies inside out, he would create an empire in which the Aryan race controlled all institutions in society, with the ultimate goal of destroying the Jews in their base – the Soviet Union, as he saw it.

Hitler’s failures as a painter, he hinted, could be attributed to what he saw as the Jewish control of the art world. Perhaps, too, a Jewish doctor could be blamed for the death and suffering of Hitler’s mother from cancer. Certainly Hitler projected onto the Jews his own proclivities for lying, slander, and his own sexual fantasies. Foppish fashions, he insisted in Mein Kampf (Vol. 2, Chap. 2), had enabled “bow-legged, disgusting Jewish bastards” to seduce “hundreds of thousands of girls.” As Hitler faced the demolition of his dreams of the Third Reich, his ability to separate the good Aryan Germans from the bad Jews and other so-called inferior peoples collapsed. The entire German nation was insufficiently loyal. In his final days, it is said that he concluded, “Germany is not worthy of me; let her perish!” Indeed, the sacrifices he demanded from the German people as the war ended represented his vengeance against them for failing him.

When the Allies closed in on Germany during the latter phases of the war, Hitler ordered the destruction of churches, schools, hospitals, livestock, marriage records, and almost anything else that he could think of. As Albert Speer said about Hitler’s obsession with architecture, “Long before the end I knew that Hitler was not destroying to build, he was building to destroy” (Speer 1970).

Tyranny, as this analysis suggests, is the noxious result of the compounding of a malignant narcissistic personality structure and absolute power. To avoid such an outcome, it is best to prevent a person with the proclivities noted here from ever coming to power. However, after tyrants have attained high position, their threat to the rest of the world outside of their immediate domain will depend on their command over resources as well as the ability of others to mobilize against the tyrants. Compromises with tyrants will not work; compromises will only whet their appetite for acting out their grandiose fantasies. Confrontations that humiliate or threaten tyrants with a complete loss of position, however, are apt to result in destructive responses that harm all parties involved. Short of a final effort to bring down tyrants, the establishment of clear and firm boundaries around them may provide a check on their most extravagant actions.

U.S. containment doctrines since World War II are instructive along these lines. Stalin was kept from acting on his most extreme expansionistic tendencies. Libyan leader Moammar Qadhafi has been relatively quiet since the U.S. bombing of his base in the mid-1980s. One wonders what would have happened in 1980 if U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie had made it clear to Saddam Hussein, when he told her of his contemplated attack on Kuwait, that any such action would bring about a tough U.S. response.

Betty Glad

Further Reading

  • Alliluyeva, S. (1967). Twenty letters to a friend (P. Johnson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row.
  • Fest, J. C. (1974). Hitler (R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
  • Frontline [Television broadcast]. (1991, February 26). Chicago: Films Inc.
  • Hershman, D. J., & Lieb, J. (1994). A brotherhood of tyrants: Manic depression and absolute power. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.
  • Hitler, A. (1939). Mein kampf. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock.
  • Karsh, E. (1990, September 30). In Baghdad, politics is a lethal game. New York Times.
  • Karsh, E., & Rautsi, I. (1991). Saddam Hussein: A political biography. New York: Maxwell Macmillan International.
  • Khrushchev, N. S. (1970). Khrushchev remembers (S. Talbott, Trans. & Ed.). Boston: Little, Brown.
  • Machiavelli, N. (1966). The prince (D. Donno, Trans. & Ed.). New York: Bantam Books.
  • Plato. (1941). The republic (B. Jowett, Trans.). New York: Random House.
  • Ribbentrop, J. (1954). The Ribbentrop memoirs (O. Watson, Trans.).  London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
  • Speer, A. (1970). Inside the Third Reich: Memoirs (R. Winston & C. Winston, Trans.). New York: Macmillan.
  • Toland, J. (1976). Adolf Hitler. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Waite, R. G. L. (1977). The psychopathic god: Adolf Hitler. New York: Basic Books.

Image credit: Achaemenid king killing a Greek hoplite. Impression from a cylinder seal, sculpted c. 500 BC–475 BC, at the time of Xerxes I. Metropolitan Museum of Art.