Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Confronting Dictators

Dictators come in all shapes, sizes, and roles. We see too many in the news, but the dictators most of us have to confront will never make headlines.

I’ve been working with a small nonprofit that does excellent work for their community. Recently, one of their worthy projects, a proposed community park, was derailed by a man in another nonprofit that is a necessary partner to the project. There is no logical reason for this man to block the park. He simply sees it as a threat to his authority and has no interest in leading the project himself so he has sabotaged it.

I’ve also been working with leaders of nonprofits in the Ukraine as they develop bicycle and sustainable transportation campaigns to help reunite their torn country; torn by a well-known dictator. Other front-page confrontations of dictators show similarly unnerving situations that have persisted over too many decades including some positive results from President Obama’s efforts in Cuba and few changes in the Big Man Syndrome in Africa.

Dictators come in many forms, some working from the shadows within nonprofits, others blatant and confident at microphones on the world stage. But all share these characteristics: 

  • A belief that their power cannot be challenged.
  • Certainty that they are the expert and have superior knowledge over anyone else.
  • Treating the people they work with as their minions who must follow their commands.
  • No interest in discussion of issues or alternative plans.
  • Disgust of visionary ideas and seeing such ideas as threats to their power.
  • A history of being rewarded for manipulative and bullying behavior i.e., elections, promotions, awards, accolades, supporters.
  • Often, but not necessarily, a large physical stature and noteworthy charisma.

In Cures for Ailing Organizations, I discuss cultures of brutality within organizations that incubate such dictators. Even a bylaws document that provides ultimate power of some over others can give people with this tendency and background the greenlight to become dictators. In other cases, the organization structure itself creates a system that is easily exploited by dictators. Prisons are one extreme example of this.

In his book The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Dr. Philip Zimbardo describes his discovery of this phenomenon through his Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971. He had encountered strange behaviors through his work as a psychologist at prisons and wanted to see if he could recreate them in a controlled experiment. He created a makeshift prison in a Stanford University basement and hired 18 young men for two weeks – nine he randomly chose to be guards, the other nine to be prisoners. By day six, the guards’ brutality toward the prisoners had become unthinkable. Even then, as the overarching authority (dictator), Dr. Zimbardo pushed for the experiment to continue. It took a concerted and relentless confrontation from his girlfriend and peers to snap him out of his spell of power and end the experiment. He writes about his experience as someone who had lost control over himself and his empathy toward others. Dr. Zimbardo has subsequently been hired to analyze similar situations that hit the world stage such as the horrible incidents at Abu Ghraib.

The Stanford Prison Experiment proved that we all have a tendency to become dictators given the proper recipe of situational support, an abusive and secretive system, and a lack of training in empathy and respect for others. If you have never bullied, demeaned, or manipulated another person, think back to your role models. How did these kind people instill in you a default of caring and empathy toward others? Now, imagine your life without these people. Wouldn’t the temptation to act on your anger be so much more enticing? Wouldn’t the fantasy of forced power where everyone jumps to your every wish actually seem comforting? How easy everything would be. How lazy and luxurious your life would become.

Dictators are humans like us, but most have never had the benefit of kind and empathetic role models. They have never known a moral compass and don’t have the slightest clue what this is. Even if they did have such role models, they have found a way to dismiss them, just as Dr. Zimbardo did when he pushed to continue the Stanford Prison Experiment. None of us are guaranteed a firm grip on our moral compass.

Such empathy toward dictators does not excuse them. All of us have a moral obligation to confront dictators if we are in a position to do so, especially dictators doing harm. Such confrontations are about as appealing as throwing yourself off a bridge, with about as much expectation of coming through the incident unscathed.

First, check your level of responsibility for the situation before embarking on this treacherous path. Most readers of this blog are leaders of an organization and we will unfortunately find ourselves in situations that give us no option but to confront – to protect our organization, to ensure the success of a project or campaign, to defend victims of abuse, and so on.

Next, gather trusted advisors, perhaps your fellow leaders or the role models I alluded to earlier. Present your concern objectively to them and see how they react. Ensure that your ego is in check and the reason for your concern has nothing to do with hurt feelings and personal anger. If your advisors agree that a confrontation is needed, start preparing.

Learn about the system and culture that supports this dictator. Find those he or she must answer to and bring your concern to them. If such a discrete confrontation does not resolve the problem, return to your advisors to plan a more public confrontation.

Confronting dictators will never be pleasant, but if we find ourselves to be the best suited for the job, we must take on this challenge. Otherwise, people who have lost their kindness, even humanness, to become a dictator will be left unchecked to trample their victims.

Are you facing or have you ever faced a situation that forced you to confront a dictator? If so, please tell your story in the comments section below.