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A Tale of Two Leaders

by Jeff Thomas, International Man:

The Civil Service Post

Back in the 1970s, when my country was first burgeoning as a financial centre and tourist destination, the government of the day decided to seek a more dynamic director for one of its departments. The department in question had long been an unproductive, paper-shuffling department, led by a series of complacent and unimaginative directors.

A suitably ambitious candidate was found overseas and brought in to lead the small department, which at that time employed only a handful of people. The new director settled into his job and it wasn’t long before it occurred to him that the best way he could push his own career forward was to continually expand the size of the department. That would not only justify numerous salary increases for himself as the department’s head, but would allow him to create his own fiefdom within the civil service.

As the country was expanding its business sector annually, the revenue collectable by the government was also expanding and, within ten years, the department had grown its employee base tenfold. The director had reached a far-higher salary level than when he began and did indeed create a fiefdom, in which he was virtually the king.

But, along the way, he often ruffled the feathers of the political leaders, who annually made the funding decisions for the department. It occurred to them that, as he was all-powerful, he could not be fired. The department had no hierarchy, no lower leadership.

So they created the post of Deputy Director and instructed the director to set about hiring a suitable candidate. Seeing that he would be choosing an unwanted successor, he set about finding the most inept candidate he could find. He selected a man who, although he actually possessed a suitable diploma to justify his hiring, had virtually no experience and neither the inclination nor the ability to make decisions. He was, in fact, the classic “educated fool.”

It soon became apparent to all that the new deputy was a waste of money and office space, but, the civil service being what it is and all governments being reluctant to fire senior employees or institute cost-reduction exercises, the deputy remained in place until the director retired, many years later. (The deputy had never changed jobs, since he was already in a position that thoroughly exceeded the Peter principle.)

But, again, the civil service being what it is, he was the senior man when the director retired, so he was promoted to director, even though he was entirely incapable of doing the job, thus assuring a dysfunctional, inefficient department.

The key here is that this particular case is a textbook example, but, in essence, is not unusual. It’s the very nature of the civil service in any country to degrade from within.

The National Leader
In 1979, Saddam Hussein, having acceded to the presidency of Iraq, held a meeting of the Ba’ath party leadership. With hundreds of senior party delegates in the audience, he announced that some had been identified as being disloyal. One after the other, he pointed them out and, as each was named, was led off for execution. Those still in the room became more nervous with every removal, knowing that any one of them could be taken away. Did they condemn their leader? No, they began spontaneously standing up to praise the removals and to praise Saddam for the purge. At the end of the meeting, Saddam invited those who were most loyal to volunteer to become the executioners, thereby ensuring that they share the guilt of the purge.

In the ensuing years, stories were sometimes told of Saddam asking his top people who amongst them should become his successor. It became apparent that, if a name was put forward as someone who was favoured to be the next leader, he was certain to be executed. Thus he made it clear that there would be no pretenders to the throne.

Saddam Hussein’s approach to the avoidance of succession was not unprecedented by any means. In fact, the more dictatorial a leader becomes, the more paranoid he is likely to become that his lieutenants are seeking to replace him. Adolf Hitler was famous for provoking jealousy between his lieutenants so they wouldn’t get close enough to each other to plot jointly against him.

The more autocratic the leader, the more he will create ineptitude beneath him.

Those who are involved in the free market tend to assume that all leaders invariably seek to surround themselves with the most capable and inspired people. And, certainly, in business, this is often the case. In a free-market system, those who are productive tend to rise to the top. The support for them comes from the fact that all others involved in the company will profit by having the most capable individual in the president’s chair.

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