Table of Contents


Panic, Blunder, and Ruthless Leaders

Gestation of the Theory

During 1990, when George H. W. Bush was facing off against Saddam Hussein in the first US-involved Gulf War, a lot of dirt about Saddam was aired. The stories covered frequent arbitrary imprisonment and murders by Iraqi secret police and “death squads” along with other activities designed to terrorize the population. In sum, the US media portrayed Iraqi leadership as acting like a bunch of Hollywood gangsters, and having done so for years.

The question that came to my mind as I digested this was: Why does the Iraqi community permit this kind of leadership? The Middle East has long experience with government. Iraqis pride themselves on being an educated, civilized people. Yet they let a gangster like Saddam Hussein run their country. Why?

That question presumed that the Iraqi community could change its choice of leadership on fairly short notice—say, a couple of years at most from planning a coup to executing it. If that presumption was correct, the Iraqi regime had to have been actively supported by important members of the community, being judged not as bad as the alternatives.

This situation was the same question as: Why had the Russians permitted Stalin to rule, the Chinese permitted Mao to rule, or the North Koreans permitted Kim Il-Sung to rule? Over the centuries, when after gaining power ruthless leaders have declared large segments of their population criminal and hauled them off to jail, or worse, why do so many of their communities permit them to continue ruling?

A friend of mine and fellow reflector on weighty matters such as these, Richard Block, offered this insight into the phenomenon of ruthless leadership: “The only problem a ruthless leader can get into is not being ruthless enough.”

Considering the histories of the Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean governments up to that time (and since), that was hard to dispute. But I was not satisfied with the Block Insight; it was so … ruthless! So I gave this phenomenon some more thought, and present my conclusions here.



First, let’s define a Ruthless Leader for purposes of this discussion. For instance, although his enemies would certainly have called Temujin (better known as Genghis Khan) a ruthless leader, he was apparently not a Ruthless Leader as defined here.

A Ruthless Leader enacts policies based neither on law, tradition, nor consensus. This offends other members of the community in a serious way and builds up resentment among them. He gets away with this because he is actively supported by an influential minority who believe his kind of leadership is necessary given current circumstances, and passively supported by a majority who either agree or don’t see a viable alternative.

Infrequently, the Ruthless Leader comprises a small committee—sometimes of three, the Russian troika—which may endure for some time before being replaced by a single Leader.

Note that although the community involved can be anything from a garden club to a nation, all my examples are of national leaders.


Three basic presumptions about leadership influenced my theory.

First, not all leaders are Ruthless Leaders. Leading by consensus, divine right, bureaucratic skill, charisma, or in various other styles, doesn’t require acting like a gangster.

Second, when a Ruthless Leader is selected the community sees him as its best choice. Other aspirants are either never chosen or quickly cast aside. This casting aside process is most obvious during revolutions. Moderates usually take power when the old regime is toppled, but sooner or later are succeeded by more extreme—and ruthless—faction leaders until a Ruthless Leader is in power. The French Revolution is a textbook case.

Third, all leaders, Ruthless or not, do generally lead as the community expects them to lead, and enact policies that people expect them to enact. Even the most seemingly arbitrary and powerful ruler is acting within limits prescribed by his important followers, and within the mores of the community he leads.

Early in his regime a Ruthless Leader’s support is often widespread. But even late in his reign, important (though often historically obscure) individuals and/or important segments of the community still support a Ruthless Leader in his ruthlessness. The individuals are not necessarily the same who supported him at first; while even a Ruthless Leader cannot ignore his important followers, he can replace them. That is what purging and power shuffling are about.

The Role of Crisis

Ruthless Leadership goes hand in hand with crisis. Among the worst Blunders a community can commit is to choose a Ruthless Leader, and for it to be Panicked into that choice requires a continuing stress culminating in a novel threat—a crisis.

As a crisis comes, the community gets worried. If the crisis is solved quickly, people stop worrying and get on about their business; the community’s conventional government thrives. But if the crisis lingers, frustration piles on top of worry, and the community begins casting about for less conventional solutions.

The potential leaders who benefit most from a sustained crisis are the “crackpots”—those who aspire to lead the community by applying unconventional policies and philosophies, and may have so aspired for a long time. Some will espouse ruthless policies. As a crisis lingers and deepens, those crackpots who claim, explicitly or implicitly, “We have to crack some heads to get through this!” will begin to gain respect and attention.

If the crisis is bad enough and endures long enough, a Ruthless Leader will emerge. He will be chosen because a) he promises to solve the crisis, b) more conventional ways of solving the crisis seem hopeless or have already failed, and usually c) aspiring leaders with even more radical ideas are clamoring for their chance, but the decision makers see them as too dangerous.

Once in power, unlike other kinds of leaders, the Ruthless Leader will immediately begin suppressing his rivals. If he is ineffective at that task, some rival faction will rapidly replace him—by a more conventional leader if the crisis is over, and if it is not, then by an even more Ruthless Leader who will benefit by his predecessor’s example and be more effective at rival suppression.

Sustaining a Stable Ruthless Leadership

Another common characteristic of Ruthless Leaders, particularly the infamous ones, is that they lie a lot … even for politicians. They lie to justify their actions and to perpetuate a crisis atmosphere.

Once a Ruthless Leader takes power, he will make some attempt to resolve the crisis that brought him into power. But if he is smart, he realizes that it’s the crisis that gave him his mandate, and should he actually succeed in solving it, the community will grow tired of his ruthlessness and look to replace him with a conventional leader or leaders. No Ruthless Leader relishes that prospect, but the few moral ones accept it. The pathologic ones actively seek or manufacture new crises, or prolong the current one, to sustain their mandates.

The most enduring and infamous Ruthless Leaders are those who convince their community that the root of the crisis is betrayal by some subset of the community. Usually these internal enemies are said to have secret, powerful external supporters, and in any case the current obvious crisis is a small part of a much larger hidden conspiracy that must be combated vigorously.

If the community buys into this “larger, more subtle” concept, they have given the their Ruthless Leader a blank check to begin a reign of terror that will be his hallmark in history. Once that is well established and institutionalized, there seem to be only two means of ending it: Massive external intervention, or the Leader’s death. One way the latter can come is that, after a vicious cycle of escalating extreme behavior, the Leader is overthrown because he is unable or unwilling to be ruthless enough—Block’s Insight.

Note that the reign of terror is optional. However, with or without it, the durable Ruthless Leader will take advantage of the opposition that his high-handedness generates by muzzling dissent and forcing dissenters out of the community, through imprisonment, exile, or death. The Leader who expects to step down in honor after addressing a temporary crisis can skip this project, too.

One clear symptom of a Ruthless Leader bent on sustaining his rule is a growing and thriving exile community of disenfranchised dissenters, including those self-exiled to avoid the imprisonment or death options. He then points to dissent as evidence of the conspiracy he is fighting, and to whoever hosts the exiled dissidents as evidence of external backing, making it all even more real to community members. They believe, “Our leader has unmasked the traitors. We must support him in this crisis.”

A useful side-effect of suppressing dissenters is that their wealth can be confiscated, either to enrich the Leader and his cronies, or so that the government can produce economic miracles without raising taxes, thus gaining community and even international respect.

Some Historical Examples

In this section I discuss the leaders of World War II because there are a fair number of them, they are far enough in the past that the character of each one’s reign has achieved some consensus among historians—and they are well known to me and many of my readers. For all I can tell, the 16th-century European leaders that Machiavelli observed when he was writing The Prince would be better examples, but they would probably take more explanation for you and certainly more research for me.

Ruthless Leaders

Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Chiang Kai-shek (the old transliteration of his name from Cantonese that was universal at the time), Mao Tse-tung (Mao Zedong in the current transliteration that became popular long after the war) … all famous leaders in the World War II period, and all of them Ruthless Leaders.

(None of these estimates include the tens of millions of soldiers and civilians these Leaders expended in the war and other military conflicts.)

I call these the “monotonous” Ruthless Leaders. They are all four infamous for the same thing: Killing lots of people. That’s the surest way to gain the Ruthless label from me. But there are other ways.

Non-Ruthless Leaders

In the same period, some leaders were not Ruthless, and therefore less memorable. At least one of those was effective. Consider:

Succession to Ruthless Leaders

After WWII, sometimes well after, other men succeeded its Ruthless Leaders.

The stable successor to a Ruthless Leader is rarely another Ruthless Leader—even when one is available. For example, Stalin’s former Head of Security, Lavrenti Beria, who was willing to be as Ruthless as Stalin and had the Communist security apparatus at his disposal to sustain the crisis, set himself to become the “power behind the throne” of the new Premier, Georgi Malenkov. But they were both short-lived in their positions, being ousted by Nikita Khrushchev, who initiated a much less repressive leadership.

What seems to prevent such a succession is that the community has grown tired of the Ruthless Leader’s reign of terror. Late in his reign, his important followers see the crisis for the pseudo-crisis it is or has become. (Mao’s Cultural Revolution is a much-studied example.) They have witnessed that the Leader is able to turn on any of them at a moment’s notice, and are no longer willing to be unsafe in their community. If the successor to a Ruthless Leader attempts to use the same technique of thriving on crisis, the community rejects him and opts for a different kind of ruler.

There are two instructive examples in the immediate post-WWII period.

Shortly after VE Day an election was called and Churchill, who had just led his country to victory against the odds, was voted out of office. While the British people were exceedingly appreciative of what he had accomplished during the World War II crisis, they didn’t think his style was appropriate for post-crisis rule. Having failed to institute a reign of terror, muzzle his opposition, or contrive a pseudo-crisis, he was peacefully removed.

Likewise in the first postwar election in the US, Roosevelt’s surrogate Truman was not expected to win a second term; the US crises were all over, too. But during his nearly four years in office as fill-in for Roosevelt, Give ’Em Hell Harry proved to be a popular conventional leader, dispelling enough of the nation’s distaste with Roosevelt Ruthlessness to win on his own merits.

Perpetuation of Ruthless Leadership

In contrast, Stalin handled the postwar adjustment by keeping crisis fresh in the minds of the Soviet people. He started purging the military again as soon as the fighting stopped, and he fomented crises in the neighboring Central European countries and Korea to demonstrate the need for continued national vigilance.

In the Chinese community, the crisis of the country’s economic underdevelopment was still weighing heavy when Mao finally drove Chiang off the mainland. External threat had loomed over China since the Opium War of 1840, but Mao kept it fresh by participating in the Korean War in 1950 (much to the surprise of General MacArthur, commanding the UN forces there), and Chiang helped by threatening to come back to the mainland from Taiwan, supported by his “American imperialist lackeys”.

Thereafter Mao invoked crisis several times again during his reign, in the Three-anti/Five-anti campaigns, the short-lived Hundred Flowers campaign and the Anti-Rightist campaigns that reversed it, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. His first successors, the Gang of Four, tried to do the same, but they were quickly vilified by the leadership decision makers, and his stable successors, beginning with Deng Xiaoping, were much quieter rulers. They have been so much quieter that the violent suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests is considered embarrassing even by the Chinese government (which peacefully but ruthlessly prevents commemorations), while similar crackdowns in the Mao era brought no additional outrage from the international chattering classes.

The exception to the rule of no-Ruthless-successor rule might seem to be Kim Jong-Il succeeding Kim Il-Sung in North Korea. But it is the situation there that is exceptional.

From the point of view of the North Koreans, the real crisis that brought Kim Il-Sung to power has never ended. During the preceding forty-year occupation of Korea by Japan, the Japanese had tried very hard to convince Koreans that they were really Japanese now and should be part of Japan’s culture. Events during and after the Korean War have kept the people of the North convinced that they are surrounded by dangerously aggressive enemies and their cultural identity is still in great peril.

How Ruthless Kim Jong-Il’s successor, Kim Jong-Un, will be depends on whether the North’s ruling class moves beyond worrying about that peril. If they do, Kim Jong-Un may reign over some sort of Korean glasnost era, with all the uncertainty that it will bring to the governing style.

More Theory and Examples

Hazards of Ruthless Leadership


As I declared earlier, Ruthless Leaders tend to lie more, and bigger, than their non-Ruthless counterparts. They continually create severe crises, or pseudo-crises, as Mao did, so that the community will not ask them to step down.

Because he is thus living a lie, the Leader fears that when and if he steps down or dies his lies will be exposed, which will be hard on his legacy if he is dead, or if he is alive will be hard on his standing in the community and make his survival there difficult.

So it’s very easy and tempting for a Ruthless Leader to take his followers down the path of adventurism—leading the community to attempt bigger and riskier projects.

But when an adventurist projects fails, the whole structure can collapse like a house of cards. Hitler was an adventurist, and Stalin picked up most of the pieces when the Thousand Year Reich came tumbling down. Stalin himself was an adventurist, but until the end of WWII Hitler provided all the adventure that Uncle Joe needed.

Of course not all Ruthless Leaders are adventurist. After the Spanish Civil War, Francisco Franco wisely chose not to spend more blood and treasure in World War II. Afterwards, the Cold War provided all the crisis he needed to continue his Ruthless Leadership until his death.

Leaders who are not adventurist have a better chance of surviving after they are out of power.

The South Korean generals who ruled between the Korean War in the 1950s and Kim Young-Sam’s ascendancy in the ’90s were Ruthless but not particularly adventurist, and most survive as members of the Korean community to this day—though that survival is controversial for many Koreans.

Chile’s Augusto Pinochet also survived after he retired—which was controversial for many Chileans.

Hypocrisy and Delusion

When I discussed this issue with my brother, Toby, he commented, “Ruthless Leaders such as Hitler and Stalin were lying hypocrites.”

I thought about my brother’s statement … hard. I weighed it against what happened at the Battle of Berlin at the end of World War II. This was a battle that lasted for a dozen days and killed about a half million German and Russian soldiers. The odd part is it was a blood fest that didn’t have to be fought at all!

First, when Berlin was encircled by Russian troops, the Russian, English, and American armies had already split Germany. This meant that no matter what happened in Berlin, the Germans weren’t going to win the war, and they weren’t going to be able to fight longer than a few weeks more. It also meant that there were no German troops anywhere near Berlin that could break the encirclement. So it was clear to the Germans they couldn’t win. If Hitler and his commanders had been rational, they would have surrendered Berlin.

Second, only Russian troops surrounded Berlin—the American and English armies were miles away, stopped by prior agreement at the Elbe River. With no risk that the Americans would steal a march on the Russians and occupy the city, and no German troops in a position to break the encirclement, a rational Stalin could wait, and would have if he had been thinking of the cost in lives.

Stalin chose instead to attack vigorously. Hitler and his leadership chose not to surrender but to defend vigorously. The result was a hugely bloody but militarily meaningless battle, followed by the suicide of Hitler and several of his followers when the city was lost.

The Moral: These are not the choices of hypocrites. These leaders were delusional—on both sides!

Yet, Toby pointed out, in their early writings these leaders and their close confidants talk openly about their hypocrisy.

How to reconcile this contradiction? I believe that Ruthless Leaders begin as hypocrites during their rise to power. They make public statements based purely on what will gain them tactical or strategic advantage. But living a lie is an uncomfortable state of mind, and the hypocrite’s mind adapts by gradually becoming delusional, a comfortable state of mind. The sycophants who surround leaders, especially the Ruthless, make this all the easier.

A more recent, minor example of this movement from hypocrisy into delusion comes from President George W. Bush and the 9-11 events. By three months later Bush liked to recount how on that fateful morning, while waiting to address a class of schoolchildren, he saw the first plane crash into the WTC on TV and thought “That’s one terrible pilot!” It was only after he got news of the second plane that he realized America was under attack!

The problem with this memory, as the Wall Street Journal (among other sources) pointed out, was that no pictures of the first plane crashing into the WTC showed up on TV until late in the afternoon, after the broadcasters obtained amateur video footage.

Nevertheless, I think that by 2004 Bush believed his story to be true. The first few times he told it, he must have been being hypocritical, telling a small lie to make himself look more on top of the situation. But memory is malleable.

Ruthless Leaders are more likely to fabricate Big Lies than small ones, but their minds too can steadily transform from hypocritical to delusional as they watch their lies seem to be believed.

This phenomenon gives an additional meaning to Baron Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

A Fictional Example

George Orwell’s 1984 is a great tale about Ruthless Leadership. Its point is to castigate totalitarianism, but the atmosphere Orwell describes is found under a mature Ruthless Leader of any political persuasion.

As in real life, in 1984 the reign of terror by a mature Ruthless Leader looks hopeless and unassailable. But so far in real history, when the Leader is gone, his harsh rule always fades like winter into spring—provided the community leaders feel the root crisis is over.

In the novel, Orwell’s imagined modern technology (comparable to what we actually have) allows faceless Party leaders to sustain the reign of terror without tight linkage to a specific real leader. They have manufactured Big Brother, and it matters not that he may be long dead or even never have existed at all. Because, through the Big Lie effect and occasional more vigorous activity by the Thought Police, virtually everyone who matters believes in and loves Big Brother. (The lower-class Proles are allowed to be contemptuous so long as they remain impotent animals.) The effect on the community is the same as if he were a living Ruthless Leader.

Nor is there any hope of massive intervention from the outside against Oceania, since Eastasia will never permit Eurasia to get that far ahead in the perpetual three-sided war, and vice versa.

So is the situation Orwell posits truly as hopeless as he makes it seem? “A boot stamping on a human face—forever”? Only if a faceless committee, Orwell’s Inner Party, can function effectively as a Ruthless Leader long-term.

That’s never happened in the real world, and it’s unlikely to ever happen. The Inner Party members won’t want to lose their own sons and daughters to the chronic purges that chronic crisis mandates. (There’s no evidence that the novel’s Junior Anti-Sex League has eradicated that family tie, even more durable than the love between a man and a woman that Orwell shows being broken.) In the end they will prefer more conventional leadership with the day-to-day security it offers.

An Ongoing Historical Example

Iraqis have long experience with government, but they also have long experience with crisis.

Iraq was carved by the Western powers out of the Ottoman Empire that had disintegrated in 1918, at the end of World War I. The Fertile Crescent at its heart is populated by peoples with many different cultural backgrounds: Kurds, Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs, Jews, a few Christians, and others. In this way, it is like the Balkan Peninsula, another chronic crisis area.

None of the cultural communities have any great loyalty to the new version of Iraq. They are all watching to see who will run it, and if it will be worth staying a part of. Splitting Iraq into three or more smaller states or countries has actually been proposed—federalization or perhaps Balkanization. This proposal has not been taken too seriously because it is feared that those small entities could be officially or de facto swallowed up by powerful neighbors, much as Lebanon has been swallowed up by Syria, and that would not help regional stability.

Living with this kind of uncertainty is a crisis and a continuing stress on the community.

Further, the people of the whole Middle East remember acutely that five hundred years ago, they, not Western Europe, were the center of civilization. Many try to answer how the region lost ground relative to the West, and how they can gain it back again for their country, their culture, and in the case of Muslims, their religion. For such people that’s at least a stress, and for the most highly concerned, a crisis.

Saddam Hussein came to power through the pan-Arabist Ba’ath party, which hoped to restore the standing of Iraq and the whole Middle East vis-à-vis their former Western masters. Iraq’s influential community leaders saw him as a modernizer, able to “kick ass and take names”. And they got a pathologic, totalitarian, adventurist Ruthless Leader, eventually removed by massive outside force, nearly a textbook model. (The exception to my model is that, having control of oil production, Saddam could keep the cost of government low without confiscating wealth from the Shia, Kurd, Marsh Arab, and other communities he disenfranchised.)

It will be interesting to see what kind of stable ruler eventually succeeds Saddam. (The Western military occupation was inherently unstable, of course, and stability has not yet been achieved under Nouri al-Maliki.) It will depend on what kind of leader the Iraqi community feels can handle its crises. The mix of worries that brought Saddam to power in the first place still exists, and the crisis of reorganizing the country has been added.

A Historical Question

It wasn’t World War II that brought WWII’s Ruthless Leaders into their positions. They were already in place, combating the worldwide Great Depression of the early 1930s and its aftermath.

Was that war inevitable, or was it a manufactured crisis brought on by adventurist Ruthless Leaders, ironically cooperating to extend their reigns by going to war against each other?