Why do Leaders Fail?

Augusto Pinochet
Why do Leaders Fail?

This is an opinion piece that some might say loosely fits within the realm of anthropology. And yet, if one could say that anthropology is the genealogy and archaeology of human activity, then under those circumstances it should be appropriate. I wish to discuss those things that any head of State, President, or sovereign leader should attempt to avoid in order not to be hated or despised by their people, the military of their country, or the rich and wealthy. Characteristics that will succeed in preventing them from being fearful of danger or reproach.


Above all, a leader should not be a rapacious man, a violator of the property of his people or women under his protection. He should not be frivolous, fickle, mean-spirited, or irresolute. He should strive to show his greatness through courage, gravity, fortitude and in his private dealings (his family especially), he should maintain a respectable reputation so that his judgments will not be usurped and so that his subordinates will not try to deceive or upend him.


The leader that conveys this impression of himself is esteemed and is not easily conspired against because his people revere him – he can only be attacked with difficulty. Being well armed (i.e., having the respect of his military) and having good allies (i.e., having good relations with the rich and wealthy of his country), affairs will remain calm and conspiracies will be difficult. But the most efficacious defense against conspiracies is not being hated or despised by his people.


As experience shows, conspiracies cannot be acted upon alone; they need companions taken from the ranks of malcontents. Malcontents that look for every advantage to denounce and disturb the popular goodwill. The problem for the conspirator is jealousy, fear, and the prospect of punishment if caught – but not only this – for the conspirator has to fear before the execution of his plot and the sequel to the crime. Moreover, if the leader has the people as an enemy as well, he cannot hope for any escape. For this reason, a leader ought to maintain the people as an ally and conspiracies will be of little concern. On the other hand, if the people do not hold him in high esteem and are hostile or bear hatred toward him, then he should fear everything and everybody.


History provides us with endless examples of empires and leaders that failed to understand these principles. In ancient times, for example, Caesar, Darius, Pyrrhus, Agathocles the Sicilian, and later Pope Alexander VI, and Cesare Borgia. For these rulers would rather plunder their subjects than rule them and gave them more reason for disunion than for union. And then there was Henry VIII, Louis XVI, Nicholas II of Russia, men who having always lived in privilege did not know how to command because they could not keep those they commanded faithful and friendly. In our times, we have seen leaders such as Anastasio Somoza, Augusto Pinochet, Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Gaddafi, sovereigns that had much difficulty in maintaining themselves because they came to rule by help from those other than the people and were surrounded by those that considered themselves equals or superior.


Without doubt, a leader becomes great by overcoming difficulties and obstacles by which they are confronted. But it is “fortune” that makes a true leader, he who has a greater necessity to earn their greatness than those who acquire it through heredity. It is fortune that causes enemies to rise and designs against a leader in order that the opportunity to overcome them may catapult him to greatness. More important, a leader who acquires his position by secret favors should think well about the reasons which induced others to favor him – who did so and why? Because if it is not due to respect or a natural affection toward him but only discontent with their government, then that leader will have great difficulty in being able to keep them loyal and friendly. Men will always prove untrue unless they are kept honest by constraint and it will be almost impossible to keep them satisfied.


Unfortunately, any leader that is an ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, or covetous person will appear to be successful only while danger is far away. But when it approaches, they will turn against the people, the military, or the rich and wealthy because they rely entirely on the promises of others and fail to possess the characteristics necessary of a true leader or knowledge of statecraft. For those alliances that are obtained by payments and not by greatness or nobility of mind are not secure and in time of crisis cannot be relied upon because owing to the baseness of men, disloyalty will prevail.

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