I once joined an organization where leaders were given reserved seats at the front of the hall during big meetings. Given that I had been at other companies where leaders sat among their people—drawing on the strength of their own character and the goodwill from years of working with people and building relationships all around—I thought this “reserved seating policy” was out of date.
Whether the company and the leaders realized it or not, they were using status to tell subordinates “I’m a leader, you’re not, respect me.” The “or else” was kind of quietly assumed. While they all believed they had earned their positions, it wasn’t earned leadership. It was earned status. And this was the way the organization had always done it. I moved out after a few years having failed to change much, and the company is now a fraction of itself.
In the news, we hear about strongmen. The first living strongmen I remember were Leonid Brezhnev and Fidel Castro. There was Pol Pot. Pinochet. Marcos. More recently it was Hugo Chavez. And nowadays it includes Putin, Xi, Kim.
These leaders get their power from the “or else”…not by having the strength of conviction, the strength of humility, the strength from being willing to follow and to lead, the strength of convincing others it’s in their interest to follow them.
And this “or else” stuff is weak. So they have no strength and only get their power from a weakness. They are not strong men, and we shouldn’t call them strongmen.
Further, their way of governing has not historically produced the long-term prosperity that democracies have produced—the unleashing through freedoms the creativity and risktaking and collaboration that generate the highest consistent standards of living, the best of so many things, including (most recently) the most effective vaccines and advanced AI. Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea, the Soviet Union…these kinds of countries may have their sputnik moments, but long term they all became like that company with its “status leaders” operating on the “or else” model…and they’re all in pitiful shape or gone.
We will continue to see “or else” leadership in some countries and some companies—it’s leadership on the cheap—and some will call these leaders strongmen. Don’t be fooled. When they are tested by the greatest of challenges—the need to change their organizations or their societies—they won’t have the strengths needed to win. And that’s when places where leader are made via osmosis, where real leaders who’ve done the hard work, and their followers, will once again trounce these “or else” leaders.
Let me know what you think. I look forward to being in touch.