The Perils of Leaders and Their Personality Cults in Times of Authoritarian Rulers

The Worldwide Rise of Strongmen and the Dangers of Personality Cults

World over, there is the rise of strongmen and authoritarian leaders. Starting with President Trump of the United States, and including President Putin of Russia, as well as India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and extending to Brazil and Philippines, there is no dearth of leaders who encourage and enjoy personality cults.

Indeed, the present times are so toxic that these leaders by virtue of their image and fawning (some would say devotees) followers, can do nothing wrong, at least in the eyes of the latter.

While there is nothing wrong with leaders enjoying mass following, the danger is when the leaders are so consumed and trapped in the image that they have built for themselves, that they take unwise and downright foolish and worse, dangerous decisions that can impact their nations, businesses, and the wider world.

A case in point is the decision by PM Modi to go for Demonetisation at a time when the Indian Economy was doing relatively well.

The effects of this momentous, yet poorly conceived, and flawed execution decision are there for all to see where with hindsight, it is apparent that this move was anything but good for the Indian Economy.

When Leaders Err, There Must be Accountability, Otherwise, the System Collapses

Of course, leaders, whether strongmen or otherwise, do take decisions that prove to be costly mistakes.

However, in most democratic nations and businesses, once such decisions are taken and they prove to be failures, there is usually an accountability exercise, wherein the Checks and Balances inherent in democracies, and professionally as well as publicly listed corporates, kick in and such decisions are penalised and perhaps, the leaders made to account for them.

However, once there are personality cults around the leaders, accountability goes for a toss, as it is hard for the leaders and their blind followers, to accept that the former could and did made mistakes.

This then is the inherent danger of leaders having personality cults, wherein the leader can do no wrong and even if he or she (though in the present times, it is mostly men) committed mistakes, there is no one to hold them accountable for fear of inflaming passions among their legions of followers.

Therefore, while celebrities in sports and entertainment can and will continue to have diehard fans, leadership in the real world and in the world of business, is fraught with perils that are only exacerbated when such leaders have personality cults around them.

What History Teaches us about the Advantages and Dangers of Personality Cults

Indeed, history is replete with instances of how authoritarian and dictatorial leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Mussolini, and Josef Stalin, all encouraged and built personality cults around themselves to the point that even when they were jumping off the cliff (so to say), their followers insisted on following them into the abyss, rather than question them or even doubt them in their minds.

At the same time, personality cults are sometimes good as in the case of the Indian Independence movement and the numerous antis colonial struggles the world over wherein leaders by dint of their charisma and personality could inspire Millions of people to fight with them against the oppressors.

Indeed, the fact that throughout history, legions of charismatic leaders have appeared from time to time and had such strong personality cults that they could make their followers walk on Water for their cause, means that if the ends are justifiable, then the means to such ends can be tolerated.

However, the problem starts when leaders start believing the Hype rather than the Reality and this is where a circle of advisors who can moderate the impulsive tendencies of such leaders helps.

How Checks and Balances are Essential when Leaders Develop Personality Cults

Having said that, in the world of business and commerce, personality cults, though very much the case, are often discouraged by the leaders themselves as well as by the other stakeholders. This is because unlike in the world of politics, business needs stable minded and well thought out decisions to be taken and well planned courses of action to be actualised.

Indeed, business leaders, as a rule, often shun the limelight and with exceptions such as Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca, and Richard Branson, one does not really come across business leaders who behave like movie heroes or who command absolute loyalty from their followers.

Of course, even in the business world, there is nothing wrong if personality cults are built as long as there are the restraining forces and the self correcting tendencies built into the system.

For instance, in India, there are many business leaders who can be said to have personality cults, though such leaders also are answerable to the balancing stakeholders as mentioned earlier.

The main point of this article is that leaders can be worshipped as long as they are accountable and are courageous enough to accept their mistakes.

The danger is when they are so caught up in the image that they tend to go it alone with disastrous consequences.


Last, leadership is as much about inspiring the followers as it is about the nuts and bolts of how things work and how things can be made to work.

Therefore, as long as leaders are aware of whether their decisions and actions can be actualised in practiced, there is no harm in them being the object of attention.

It is only when they lose touch with reality that alarm bells ought to go off.

To conclude, personality cults are tolerable as long as the leader does not become larger than life itself and gets caught in the bubble of illusion leading to hard landing when reality strikes.

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