We know there are various types of leadership. Can you think of leaders in your organisation that you warm to. What is it about their style that makes engaging with them a pleasant experience?
Now think about a leader you have engaged with in the past that was a negative experience for you and others. What is it about their style of leadership that makes engaging with them such an un-pleasant experience.
Leadership and leadership style can have a huge impact on the organisational culture within a sporting, business or work environment. The leadership style of an organisation's leader has huge influence on the type of behaviours that become normalised or 'ok' within that organisation. Their style often sets the tone for how things get done within the organisation and this often influences sub-cultures that are cultivated through the organisation, unfortunately, often for the worse.
One sub-optimal leadership style we know about is an 'old school' autocratic authoritarian style where the leader rules with an iron fist. Here, followers bow to their dictatorial approach and their perceived greater knowledge when very often, those followers are way more qualified than the leader themselves. These types of leaders are mostly inept but trade on fear and coercion to control their followers. They tend surround themselves with and promote followers who are ‘yes men’ - those who will agree with every decision the leader makes irrespective of what it is. Such followers are primarily influenced through inducement of fear and their self-centred intention to get higher up the food chain, even if it comes at huge costs to others around them.
Such followers are strategically chosen because the inept dictatorial leader of the organisation sees them as morally weak, and knows they will bow to the leaders demands irrespective of what they are. Middle leaders in such organisations rarely say, or are afraid to say what they actually think – at least to the leader in question. Such middle leaders are often influenced by fear by a leader who is rarely liked, and who tends to get by for so long until those underneath them revolt. Across history, within an international context, we think of Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot, Robert Mugabe, Radovan Karadžić and more recently, Vladimir Putin.
On the other hand, Transformational Leadership is a style where a leader espouses strong but likeable characteristics in a way that demonstrates empathy with followers. These leaders have the capacity to bring people with them, garnering support for their decisions because it is for the greater good of the organisation and people involved. They are able to foster autonomy and support of their ‘colleagues’ and generally foster really positive group dynamics among their followers. From a world leader perspective, we think of the reaction in Ukraine to their war-time leader Volodymyr Zelensky, while we might also consider the esteem in which ex New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern, is held in globally, having relinquished her role due to the demands of the role and her wish to prioritise spending more time with her young children. For her, her leadership role meant that she was there to serve, and not to massage her own ego.
How followers generally feel about these different types of leaders within different organisations couldn’t be more stark. Let’s just contrast Putin and Zelensky for the purpose of style comparison of an autocratic versus a transformational leader.
Putin appears to be self obsessed with his own self importance, and is in the role for self gain and the sustenance of his own ego. He trades on fake news and huge volumes of lies to foster a false narrative that everything is great in his country. He invokes fear and resentment within an unsustainable power dynamic that results in high staff turnover, while those at the very bottom of the social hierarchy struggle financially.
On a political level, the only way to climb the food chain is to engage positively with existing leaders, irrespective of their values or morals. It will often mean having to accept a culture of bullying, lies and coercive control that is enacted out of vested interests among colleagues and other aspiring leaders. Such behaviours (lies, bullying and coercive control) permeate the culture of how things get done generally. If you are willing to accept this, close your eyes and keep your mouth closed, you will get higher up the food chain. If you are not, you may be pushed down the pecking order, or worse still, you will be removed, jailed, poisoned or killed like many have under Putin’s regime.
Just consider for a moment, how Putin’s regime has wound up all free press news entities in Russia so that he can control the media and as a result, control the narrative around both his leadership and the war of terror that he reigns on Ukraine. Putin actively dismisses any threats to his power within the Russian state itself. Consider the unwarranted jailing and attempted poisoning of anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny, who has long been the most prominent face of Russian opposition to President Vladimir Putin. Navalny, like others who were poisoned with novichok nerve agent (some of whom died), has suffered as Putin has sought to fuel his ego and exert his power to eradicate those that he sees as a threat to his power in the Kremlin.
That said, even though Navalny has been unable to challenge the president at the ballot box, his voice retains huge power for millions of Russian followers on social media - many in their early 20s or younger - and his campaign group's anti-corruption videos have reached millions. The people want Navalny, but they are too fearful to say it publicly, such is the control of Putin.
Putin's ego mania does not stop there either. In his personal life, he is rumoured to have fathered children with a mistress and ex Russian Olympic gymnastic medalist Aline Kabaeva while he was married to his wife. Kabaeva, who later entered politics in Russia is more than 20 years younger than Putin and in 2014, became chairperson of a Kremlin controlled news and media organisation that spun false information on the occurrences in Ukraine.
Beyond that, Putin is reported to have rigged many elections to suit what he wants. He knows that if he can control those subordinates that hold localised power, he can control the masses. In some countries, these types of leaders surround themselves with friends / sub-ordinates within the middle leaders system at regional levels to help control their power, while some leaders have even infiltrated these middle ranking power levels with members of their own families to exert further control. One such example is the power mechanism of North Korea, where Kim Jong-il surrounded himself with his own family as the power brokers of the state, and even arranged that his son (Kim Jong-Un) would replace him as the country's leader, with Jong-Un unveiled by a state controlled media as the 'Great Successor' to his fathers throne.
Many 'old school' dictatorial leaders are known to eradicate those that remain a threat to their power. In Russia, besides Navalny, Putin is known to have jailed or killed many people that have been shown to be a threat to his ‘democratic’ power', with a high proportion miraculously coming to 'accidental' deaths. A high proportion of aspiring politicians, journalists or intelligence officers who held information that compromised Putin's power have been reported to have died through 'suicide' while others have 'accidentally fallen out of buildings' in recent times.
Putin's current Russian regime has also changed a significant proportion of both it's political and military leadership group in the last number of months. In fact, significant volumes of politicians and army generals either lost their jobs or have 'been replaced' by other less experienced generals because Putin decided that he had lost their support.
Those promoted in their places will be glad of their promotions in the short term with a likely increase in salary fueling their sense of ego and self-importance. Either way, they will continue to work under a regime that trades on fear and control. For some, at some point in the future however (assuming Putin remains in charge), when they are asked to facilitate something they fundamentally disagree with, the stronger ones will stand up and move on. The weak ones will stay and pander to Putin’s will.
To reinforce his power, Putin is reported to have used an illegal terror group called the Wagner group to reign further terror on other nations. Reported to be funded by the Russian government, The Wagner Group have recruited and armed poor people from other countries along with Russian criminals and are currently involved in reigning terror in Ukraine among other countries (mostly African), all for power over natural resources and financial gain.
Contrastingly, Zelensky comes across as an open, ‘regular’ guy, who espouses morals that we see as admirable in humankind. He appears to have the capability to connect with his people and has shown and fostered huge resilience among his people against a backdrop of Putin’s bullying regime. Against the odds, his army have remained hugely resilient, and the loyalty being shown to both him and the Ukraine is built on a significant level of unity and a positive motivational climate that has been fostered within those fighting for Ukraine.
A transformational leader (Zelensky) is one who can garner the support of his followers for the right reasons; ie because they are doing the right thing in the best interests of the people in general. Their organisations don't lose too many people for the wrong reasons and people want to stay because it is a positive place to be. Such leaders are devoid of ego and are able to delegate and decentralise power, foregoing control, power and manipulation of every situation. This empowerment of followers to also be devoid of ego and be the best that they can be can turn societies and organisations around. This supportive bottom up, rather than top down approach, enables organisations and people to thrive and grow in a way that everybody’s opinion matters and people feel valued. Here, people are made to feel part of something that is bigger than themselves for the greater good, and not feel down-trodden and controlled from those on high
Zelensky has inspired a generation to fight for their nation, while also showing the ability to connect with other world leaders. With these capabilities, he has garnered the considerable support and financial aid from the majority of world nations to inspire his army to fend off the Russians. The ironic thing in all of this is that Zelensky has very little experience in politics and was a real outsider when running for election in 2019. In fact, in his early political career, some of his country folk considered him a bit of a joke politician as he had somehow come into politics from a famous acting and comedy background. However, his political campaign to end corruption won him a wide base of support in the presidential election in 2019, where he won comfortably.
Putin may have considered Zelensky's inexperience as a leader as a perfect opportunity to forge an attack on Ukraine. However, the mandate that got Zelensky elected in the first place (ending corruption), may be standing to him now as his country folk rally around him. He has stood firm and resolute in dealing with Putin's attacks, and there is no doubt but that his experience in the field of the arts and media has enhanced his capability to effectively send the right messaging to his people. More importantly, his admirable humanistic values and traits that he has been able to display to the world, has stood to him in convincing his people to follow his lead, showing huge resistance against the Russian invasion.
Consider what is happening in the current Russian regime or 1940’s Germany – a fear induced dynamic that is there to serve the needs of the one person at the top of the organisation and the few pawns they surround themselves with until they grow a moral compass. An autocratic leader trading on bullying and coercive control to satisfy their own ego, only has a certain amount of shelf life before the inevitable occurs and the ground level followers and people rise up against it. It has consistently happened across time, truth always wins and the bad guys get shown up for what they are. Consider Hitler, Pol Pot, Mugabe and many other dictators across many other organisations.
# Be more like Zelensky.
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Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychology consultant with the Sport Ireland Institute and has worked with countless teams and athletes from grass-roots to elite level performance across sport and business.
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Performance psychologist - accredited with Irish Institute of Sport