As managers, what can we learn from the downfall of Robert Mugabe?
“Only God who appointed me will remove me”
Robert Mugabe – President of Zimbabwe
Ironically, it was not God who removed Mugabe but his own army.
Normally I send my monthly blog on 21st of the month – this forces me to have the blog ready. A self-imposed discipline that now has become a habit. However, each December I send it out early so it does not get lost in the clutter and busyness before Christmas.
With the fall of the despotic dictator Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe last month, it would be a pity to waste the opportunity to discuss issues of leadership.
Dictators, even when putting their humanitarian and moral crimes aside, are usually poor managers. Most dictators run their countries in such a way, that if they were companies, they would have failed long ago. Despite the lessons of history, it does not stop many managers today from doing their best to emulate the world’s worst management techniques. Most of us have worked for such people during our working life.
Mugabe is a great example. In 37 years of corrupt, bloody, incompetent and chaotic rule, Mugabe managed to reduce the size of the economy to a third of its size in 1980, turning the country from a net food exporter to a country where three quarters of the population now rely on food aid to survive.
Successfully leading a team isn’t easy, however it takes a special skill to lead as incompetently as Mugabe. Without trivialising the effects of brutal regimes on citizens where many “national shareholders” pay with their lives, there are some undesirable management characteristics that managers and leaders frequently exhibit that are displayed by dictators such as Mugabe.
What three lessons can we learn from Mugabe’s leadership?
- Inauthentic leadership is not sustainable. Whilst it might appear that 37 years in power implies sustainable leadership, Mugabe’s leadership was only sustained by military force, violence and vote rigging. Even his own political party, ZANU-PF turned on him very quickly indicating that his leadership was inauthentic. Without military support his leadership ceased to exist. His departure brought the population out dancing in the streets.
I can remember working for a general manager who people did not trust, always managed upwards and ignored his subordinates and peers. When he eventually headed the company, there was a rush to the exits of senior managers. The business struggled and was taken over 2 years later.
- Surround yourself by people who are not afraid to say ‘YES’. Mugabe ensured that any potential leadership rivals and political rivals were silenced, often in suspicious vehicle accidents and mysterious house fires, thereby surrounding himself with sycophants who would play to his ego and enrich themselves through his corrupt patronage. Promoting his wife to Vice President, and firing Vice President was probably the last straw. Ironically the ‘fired’ Vice President has since replaced Mugabe as president.
The downfall of many great organisations can be traced to the hubris and arrogance of its leaders. Mugabe fits this picture. Having a fixed mindset, he closed himself off from feedback, and saw himself as the smartest person in the room, was unwilling to listen to others whilst surrounding himself with sycophants who praised him as a ‘revolutionary hero’.
Surrounding yourself with “yes” people may make life easier in the short-term, however it does not create long-term, sustainable outcomes, whether in business or politics.
I once witnessed a senior manager surround himself with ‘yes men’ who were sycophantic to his requirements, while he failed to develop them as professional managers. It was a smokescreen so that he could corruptly enrich himself through the business. Like most dictators he kept his team weak and did not plan for succession. His corrupt activities were eventually found out, was dismissed and left his division in a perilously unprofitable state.
- Blame others to divert attention from your own failings whilst never admitting that you make mistakes. Mugabe was a past master at this strategy, whether it was blaming the British government for his own incompetent economic management, the white commercial farmers for not wanting to support his government or his political opposition for civil unrest, he always diverted the blame.
On a visit to Zimbabwe several years ago, a local friend, who was not born when Mugabe came to power privately expressed cynicism about the government by stating:
“Why does the government blame the previous rulers when they have been in power for over 35 years? The Vietnamese are still not blaming the Americans for the war they have just got on with it”
We see this behavior by many managers today. They blame the market, their employees, the government or even their customers for their own management failings. I think we have all worked for managers who have displayed this characteristic. Instead of being accountable for the performance of the organisation, they blame external factors and ignore the cause of the problems. For example, a good employee who leaves under a dictatorial manager is never given an exit interview and their performance or contribution is normally denigrated.
As a boss are you displaying dictatorial management behavior?
In recognising dictatorial management behavioral traits such as those displayed by Mugabe, it allows us to ensure firstly, that we do not act in this manner and secondly to take action if we see it in others. This is the role of a good leader.
Good team leaders display authentic leadership because it is sustainable and best for the team. They surround themselves with competent people, often brighter than themselves and are inclusive of all team members. Furthermore, they develop a succession plan and focus on the issues that drive the business and hold themselves accountable for both successes and failures.
If you would like to test your knowledge of dictators, try this quiz – I got 50/60.
Goodluck (Dictator Quiz)