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Captains of Industry – Leaders or Glorified Dictators?

Tying The Tourniquet

American actor and author Oscar Lavant once said “there’s a fine line between genius and insanity.” In the light of everything that’s happening in South Africa at the moment, it would be more than appropriate to borrow from this quote a little, and say that there’s a fine line between leaders and dictators.

Of course, we’re not the only country to be grappling with this problem, and it’s easy to find examples throughout history of leaders who took their position, influence and power that one step too far.

In the mid 19th Century, Thomas Carlyle first mentioned “Captains of Industry” in his book, Past and Present. The term referred to business leaders who had amassed a considerable personal fortune, but had also contributed positively to their country.

And then, almost in the same breath, we read about “robber barons” – those business leaders who used political means to achieve personal ends. The line between these two types of leaders was often not only very fine, but completely non-existant.

When Does Leadership Become Dictatorship?

A leader must be able to be both relatable to his or her team, while also earning their loyalty and respect. He must be a integral, active link in the chain, but be only a part of the chain. He shouldn’t micromanage and undermine the core competencies of the rest of his team. Some leaders, though, are not comfortable with leaving certain tasks in the hands of their staff. They value control above teamwork, and discourage input from others. Sadly, as we’ve seen from one corporate scandal after another, the reason for this is usually to hide nefarious goings on.

Corporate dictators come across as excessively dominant. They are forceful and generally feared as a bosses. They brook no dissent, and only those subordinates who obsequiously defer to them benefit from their extensive patronage.

What Effect Does Dictatorship Have On Business?

A dictatorial leadership style is detrimental to any business, fostering an institutional culture of self-censorship and uncritical subservience. Resentment is a common emotion. Highly skilled and experienced employees are given no say in any decision making, and are not allowed to make any meaningful contribution besides the pure mechanics of doing their jobs.

Because group input is discouraged, teams become frustrated. This ultimately stifles creativity, and damages the overall ability of the group to perform well. Low morale is very common, and teams feel dissatisfied and unproductive. Their interest in their work drops, and they may even look for ways to sabotage the efforts of the rest of the group. Turnover is high, as many high-potential individuals simply walk out of the door.

Leaders Who Became Dictators

Marcus Jooste, CEO, Steinhoff

Jooste cast a long shadow. People described him in reverent tones, and “charisma” was a word often used. Business associates have been quoted as saying he had a “legion of disciples,” and that many people “worshipped him unquestioningly.” These fiercely loyal insiders enjoyed both social and financial benefits from Jooste’s largesse. By surrounding himself with such admirers, Jooste was able to hide his unethical behaviour without any pushback – or even so much as a raised eyebrow – from colleagues.

Asher Bohbot, Fouder And Former CEO, EOH

Despite share prices tanking, and his own resignation from the company in the wake of accusations of an allegedly corrupt contract with SA’s department of defence, Asher Bohbot remains startlingly philosophical. “Problems are inevitable in a business of EOH’s size,” he said. “To expect absolute perfection from humans is just not realistic.”

John Block, Former Northern Cape ANC Chairperson And Finance MEC

Currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for corruption, Block used his political influence to ensure that lease agreements with various Northern Cape governmental departments were awarded to co-accused’s Chris Scholtz’s companies in return for close on R1 million in backhanders.

Jeffrey Skilling, Enron

Charged with fraud, insider trading and conspiracy, the former Enron Chief Executive served 12 years in prison for his role in a complex scheme that ultimately led to the company’s collapse – one of the largest corporate bankruptcies in American history.

What Can We Conclude From This?

No one wants wishy washer leadership. That’s a given. Sometimes, the hard truth is that leaders with a kind of benevolent dictatorship to their leadership style actually get a lot done. But, and here’s that fine line again, you don’t want it pushed too far. To the point where leaders are either feared or revered – both of which essentially give them carte blanche to do what they want to meet their own, private agendas. Corporate South Africa needs to find a middle ground, and it needs to find it fast.