sneaky authoritarianism



“Off goes the head of the king, and tyranny gives way to freedom. The change seems abysmal. Then, bit by bit, the face of freedom hardens, and by and by it is the old face of tyranny. Then another cycle, and another. But under the play of all these opposites there is something fundamental and permanent — the basic delusion that men may be governed and yet be free.”
H.L. Mencken


Sneaky authoritarianism in business. Or maybe use its more comfortable title: benevolent dictatorship. I haven’t met one business leader who wields this type of power who doesn’t think they are wielding it for the greater good. And while they couch it in a truly functional way, guaranteeing some form of effective consistency, or maybe that they have some underlying intuition to keep the business, overall, “on the tracks”, there is a more insidious thread buried within their thinking.

The issue occurs with, well, power. Power threads its way through whatever ‘benevolence’ that may occur.

Let me explain. Those in power like evenness and replication and they view the only way to keep balance is to enforce it. they believe they are the only thing, or the main thing, balancing chaos and order. They believe that no one else understands how to balance or maybe can even see the value of balance or maybe even the dangers in not being balanced. They only see other views as biased and don’t appreciate what those in power are actually doing for them and, as a consequence, for everyone and the greater good. They see themselves as being in the middle doing what’s best – for “their sake” <the people>. They cloak this power in ‘safety.’

“We keep people safe and the business safe.”

And, oddly, but in some rational way, they actually believe if everyone just saw what they saw, how important it was and their role, everyone would be happy they were doing what they were doing. Yeah. This gets worse when you look under the hood. They see their own power as a sacrifice. That they have sacrificed themselves for you <even though it is the opposite – they have asked us to sacrifice for them>.

They lie to us, for our own good.

They act in a higher cause, because they are protecting us.

What they don’t understand is that a true higher cause doesn’t have people deserting it, and them, when they find out the truth. And therein lies the ugly underbelly of benevolent dictatorship: rejection is the biggest fear of someone in power.

I end there because I do not believe power corrupts anyone. You either have certain beliefs, or you don’t, and power simply amplifies who and what you are and what you think. It is just as Ursula Le Guin said: “It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.” Sneaky authoritarianism cannot take hold of an unconsenting soul.

I end with that thought because benevolent directorship is sneaky authoritarianism. It is inherently about one’s mindset and beliefs because they drive your behaviors. If business leadership wants to change their business, well, they shouldn’t be looking to ‘culture’ or ‘purpose of the business’, they should start with their own mindset and beliefs. Ponder.


“What she had begun to learn was the weight of liberty. Freedom is a heavy load, a great and strange burden for the spirit to undertake. It is not easy. It is not a gift given, but a choice made, and the choice may be a hard one. The road goes upward toward the light; but the laden traveler may never reach the end of it.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Tombs of Atuan

Written by Bruce