Hopefully no one’s idea of what a great leader should be.

As I prepare to deliver a new round of our Leadership Choices course in a couple of weeks, by sheer accident I happen to be reading Robert Service’s biography of Joseph Stalin.


Surprisingly enough, I am learning a lot about leadership in reading Stalin’s biography, most of it falling in the “how not to do it” category. One of the most fundamentally evil leaders in history, Stalin would certainly fail any sane person’s gut-check level test on quality leadership. It’s therefore interesting that one could make the case that Stalin might have scored reasonably well on a survey measuring him against the five key leadership practices defined by Kouzes and Posner:

  • Challenging the Process: He entirely transformed both the government and the society. He refused to believe that experts had all the answers and constantly challenged existing assumptions.
  • Inspiring a Shared Vision: While he certainly didn’t bother to develop a consensus, he had a very clear and articulate vision of what he wanted the Soviet Union to become.
  • Enabling Others to Act: He ensured that thousands of workers were promoted into management positions.
  • Modeling the Way: He worked hard, dressed simply and rarely indulged himself in luxury.
  • Encouraging the Heart: He sent congratulations to artists, scientists and bureaucrats for work performed on behalf of the nation.

While all of this is true, it’s also superficial nonsense. Stalin never allowed anyone to challenge his processes, and any deviation from what he thought was the best course resulted in execution or a long stay in a gulag. His vision was singular and imposed upon millions of innocent people by brute force. He was a supreme control freak, paranoid to the extreme, trusted no one and gave specific instructions to even senior-level people that he expected to be carried out to the letter. He was secretive, manipulative and achieved most of his goals through terror and violence. He sent hundreds of thousands of people to labor camps and millions to their deaths.

Yes, Stalin got the job done. Not particularly efficiently, but effectively. He had a very clear idea of what he wanted to accomplish and allowed nothing and no one to stand in his way. In other words, he had qualities that people in business often say they admire, especially when they fail to look beneath the surface qualities of leadership.

Stalin’s story is an extreme example of why, in the end, the belief that “results are all that matter” is fundamentally absurd. How leaders achieve results is often more important than what they achieve, for while reporting periods and the quarterly conference call pass into history, how one leads has lasting effects on the culture. If a leader achieves results through unethical or immoral practices, through unbridled egotism or through an at-all-costs approach, he or she destroys trust throughout the organization and strips the work of any meaning. Much of my work in organizational development involves trying to help organizations where trust has been shattered by a leader who cared only about the bottom line and had no interest in the people or the culture.

People matter. Values matter. Ethics matter. Kouzes and Posner stress this in every one of their five leadership practices, if you read more deeply into their explanations of those practices. The why and the how matter as much as the what, and truly great leaders are those who never forget that.

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About Bob Mendonsa

Bob Mendonsa is an experienced, engaging facilitator with over twenty years of experience delivering and designing leadership and organizational development programs at all organizational levels in a wide range of industries. Bob’s body of work also includes significant experience in team building, human resources and assignments as the top HR/OD executive at three different companies.

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