How to Be a Good Dictator (or Not)

Angry Man

In the 16th century, political consultant (for lack of a better term) Niccolò Machiavelli’s works were published in the controversial manuscript The Prince – which is still in print today. In it, Machiavelli shared his theories on how a ruler could maintain control of his province – especially when gaining new subjects through military or political conquest. Essentially, it’s a dictator’s best practices manual.

Dictatorship is alive and well in the world of global politics, but it’s a not-so-subtle organizational management style as well. So if you want to lead like a dictator, here are some unfortunate suggestions for you, including some from Machiavelli. And if you prefer a more serving style of leadership, note the contrasts.

Capitalize on Crises

Crises can be ripe ground for gaining or expanding control, both in politics and business. All you need to do is find a villain or a condition to blame and pronounce yourself the savior. In fact, when a situation is especially negative (think fallout from a corporate scandal), you don’t necessarily have to have a great plan – you can just capitalize off negative public sentiment.

For servant leaders: Caution against emotional reactions to crises and emphasize the need for qualified leaders with thoughtful solutions.

Keep Others Off Balance

In principled organizations, people always know where they stand because they get clear direction and feedback. Dictators thrive on internal instability. Since knowledge is power, they selectively withhold information so no one has the full picture beside themselves. And instead of creating clear expectations and accountability measures, they play the blame game when things don’t turn out as anticipated.

For servant leaders: Over-communicate what is most important, including goals and plans regarding direction. Be clear about expectations. Give frequent and constructive feedback.

Eliminate Internal Threats

By definition, every leader is a potential threat to a dictator’s power. Therefore, they have no option but to squash leaders who stand out – even (and sometimes especially) the competent ones. In their place, dictators install leaders they can control (e.g. tainted leaders they have dirt on). Additionally, dictators are careful to prevent high levels of trust among their subordinates for fear of future opposition.

For servant leaders: Actively support and celebrate the success of others. Recruit a strong team, including people who are smarter or better than you. Work hard to promote trust and collaboration within the team and organization.

Reward Personal Loyalty

Machiavelli theorized that, “It’s best to be loved as well as feared. But if you can only have one, it is safer to be feared.” Dictators can rarely survive long-term without public support, so there are often distinctions between their public and private dealings. PR is a constant priority. Furthermore, rewards tend to be based on public displays of loyalty and commitment to the cause above other factors, such as competence and courage.

For servant leaders: Reward commitment to the values that guide the organization. Despise favoritism. Build a team with diverse viewpoints.

Prevent Criticism

One reason dictators hate criticism is because much of it is just. And since accountability is in short supply, there is no way to right a misstep – only silence the accusers. Ultimately, criticizing a dictator is dangerous business because it’s received as a threat that must be dealt with – often harshly.

For servant leaders: Know the difference between just and unjust criticism. Seek feedback, take it to heart and then act on it.

By now you may have noticed a trend: dictators thirst for power and can never be fully satisfied. It’s a leadership style that is rooted in fear – and ultimately that fear is passed on to followers. It’s an incredibly damning legacy.

So here’s the question: in which areas do you act more like a dictator than a servant leader?

Incidentally, if you find the philosophies of dictatorship and leadership interesting, pick up a copy of The Prince and give it a read. Or check out one of my favorite leadership books titled The Contrarian’s Guide to Leadership, which references several of Machiavelli’s insightful concepts as well.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, speaker and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective with Leadership-in-a-Box.