by Brent Ruben
Distinguished Professor of Communication, Senior University Fellow, Founder of the Center for Organizational Leadership, Rutgers University, USA
20 April 2020
An increase in authoritarian-style leaders and leadership practices in the United States and some other democratic countries is not a new topic of concern.
What is new, however, is the COVID-19 crisis and the leadership challenges it presents. The pandemic is causing massive changes in nearly all facets of our personal and professional lives worldwide. Ironically, the pandemic might be the kind of disruptive force that also triggers a reset in our ways of thinking about leadership, leaders, and leadership practices.
Examples of authoritarian-style leadership practices have become disturbingly common. We are familiar with efforts of some leaders to undermine a free press (and other media), to express disdain for the work of legitimate journalists, and to encourage a blurring of the distinction between news and advocacy. In the world of authoritarian-style leadership, “fake news” is anything a leader does not like. An “enemy” is any person or institution that promotes points of view other than those a leader embraces. “Loyalty” is unyielding support for particular leaders and their ideologies, and those who fail the loyalty test are subject to personal attacks for their opinions, and sometimes their appearance, bullying, dismissal or worse.
The appropriate role of the authoritarian-style leader—their “executive privilege”—is virtually anything a leader believes is important and wishes to pursue, and that pursuit takes all possible forms and means. Particularly troubling are liberties taken with the concept of “facts,” and the dismissal of the work of scientists, trained professionals, and technical experts when findings disagree with the leader’s points of view. The contributions of scientists and scholars are often characterized as being politically motivated, weaponized and yet another instance of “fake news.” The authoritarian-style leader is never wrong, never apologizes, and charges ahead to forge the way to the greatness the leader envisions.
The contributions of scientists and scholars are often characterized as being politically motivated, weaponized and yet another instance of "fake news." The authoritarian-style leader is never wrong, never apologizes, and charges ahead to forge the way to the greatness the leader envisions.
Authoritarian-style leaders are not without a base of supporters who support specific leader-advocated plans and policies, which may be understandable. But less easy to understand is why these supporters seem able to overlook—and sometimes embrace—a self-promoting, self-referenced, self-congratulatory and narcissistic style that often includes denigration and dismissal of alternative points of view, and sometimes taunting and mocking of the people who advance these views.
While these approaches are particularly emblematic of some leaders, they become contagious, normalized and accepted practice for other leaders as well.
Popular leadership theories in textbooks and leadership development programs advocate behaviors and concepts such as servant leadership, authentic leadership and competency-based leadership. Classic models describe individual leadership approaches that embody transparency, integrity, inclusiveness, respectfulness, consistency, empathy and self-reflection. Leadership scholars and historians variously point to Nelson Mandela, Angela Merkel, Ronald Reagan, Pope Francis, Warren Buffett, Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Golda Meir, and Winston Churchill as leaders who exemplified many of these attributes.
Rather than service or authenticity, or advancing prosocial values, winning seems to be the core value that explains and guides the actions of authoritarian-style leaders. Being perceived as a winner—with all the associated optics—is what matters most.
Sadly, the authoritarian behaviors discussed have gradually come to be taken for granted by many. “That’s just the way it is,” people say. But perhaps COVID-19 has the potential to change all that. The opportunity to compare and contrast the styles and communication competencies of national and state leaders on television each day makes clear that exaggeration, defensiveness, and self-promotion serve no helpful purpose. In critical times—and more generally—the need is for leaders who will speak and respond with authenticity, accuracy, consistency and compassion to the issues at hand, not leaders or loyalists who want to silence anyone with questions or points of view that will not advance a leader’s self-image or political agenda.
Perhaps at this difficult time for all of us, there is hope that our inoculation to a “that’s just the way it is” way of thinking about leadership style will be disrupted by the pressing needs of the COVID-19 crisis and the obvious deficiencies of authoritarian-style leadership. We can hope that this crisis and the opportunity it provides for observing contrasting leadership styles in action will trigger sorely needed reflection and a reset in our ways of thinking about what leadership, leaders, and leadership practice ought to be.
Adapted from article by Brent Ruben published in The Star-Ledger, March 31, 2020.
Dr. Brent D. Ruben is Distinguished Professor of Communication and Senior University Fellow and Founder of the Center for Organizational Leadership at Rutgers University. His authored/coauthored books include Leadership, Communication, and Social Influence: A Theory of Resonance, Activation, and Cultivation (2019), A Guide for Leaders in Higher Education: Core Concepts, Competencies, and Tools (2017); and What Leaders Need to Know and Do (2006). He received The Malcolm Baldrige Foundation Inaugural Award for National Leadership Excellence in Education in 2018. Brent is a member of the ILA.