Leadership In Crisis: Five steps to autocracy


My name is Sari van Poelje. I’m the director of Intact Academy and Team Agility. At Team Agility we help businesses innovate more quickly than their products to accelerate their time to market. In Intact Academy we organize accredited training programs for coaches and consultants to themselves and their practice. I’ve been a consultant for 35 years and a leader in multinational businesses for 23 years. This series of blogs is a way for me to transfer my knowledge to a new generation.

Today I’d like to talk to you about the development of autocratic systems. I’ve been getting a lot of questions about this because in the world today post-Covid-mania we’re seeing that some systems are becoming more democratic and more refocused. They’re embracing this change of paradigm from individual responsibility to collective responsibility. And in other countries we’re seeing that they’re developing more autocratically, they’re enforcing rules and in some cases, military rule. 

What is it that makes a paradigm shift possible in some countries and not in others? 

I wrote an article in the 1990s, where I described the development of autocratic systems. The reason I wrote that article was because I was so shocked with what happened in Waco in Texas. A sect run by David Koresh, the Davidians, was involved in a siege with the FBI. Fifty-one days later the FBI burnt the whole building with women and children inside, with a loss of 76 lives. How is this possible in a country that calls itself democratic? 

Throughout my life, I’ve worked in many different countries, teaching transactional analysis, but also innovating business. I’ve always been fascinated by the rules of government. My fascination was as an organizational consultant, not as “a politician”.. How does an organization develop from a democratic to an autocratic or vice versa? What I found is that there’s very little difference in the development between autocratic and democratic systems. During my research I found that autocratic systems develop through five stages. 


Stage 1: Crowd Crystallizer 


In the first stage you have a very strong leader who we usually call “charming manipulators” or narcissists. They have the will to become a crowd crystallizer. They create a dependent relationship with the people around them. The followers crystallize around this master because they’re looking for strong leadership in uncertain times. And that’s what makes it really scary in these post-Covid times, because many of us are looking for strong leadership. These followers are over-adapting to the system to belong and to be led.

At this point of development you have a master and some followers, and it’s still a mass, it’s undefined. There are not very strong boundaries around it, but everyone is attached to the leaders.  In actual fact, the same development happens in a democratic system. You have a leader and followers or members. The big difference is the degree of dependency. 


Stage 2: Establish Boundaries


In stage two we see the establishment of boundaries and roles. This also happens in a democratic system. The difference in an autocratic system is that you have a boundary around the system, which is not permeable. So that means you can come in, but you can’t go out. And once you’re in you have to give up your identity. Most sects and autocratic systems work on the basis that once you’re in, you become a number and you have to give up your name. Often you also have to give up your possessions. 

Within that enclosed space, the master becomes a mythical figure. He becomes Omnipotent within that space. The way that is done is by becoming quite invisible. An autocratic narcissist claims everything and becomes quite mysterious, because as long as there’s mystery, you’re not human. And as long as you’re not human, you’re God-like in that space.

This happens within sects, but also within autocratic governments. The leader becomes a master and becomes quite mythical. Look at Putin or Trump. They act like they’re Godlike within their own domains. 


Stage 3: Impose Rules


At the third stage the master starts to impose more and more rules on the followers. So they have to give up more of themselves to become part of the system. Now, in a sect that’s quite obvious. This is what happened in Waco. The master establishes legitimacy by symbolically beating down anyone who would challenge his authority.

Right now there are Anti-racism protests in America and sweeping across the world. It’s not just the fact that George Floyd died and the way he died, but that he was actually murdered by a police force, which was supposed to keep the justice. It’s also, I think, a protest against this demand of a master further subjugating his followers. In an autocratic system, when you protest, you get military rule, That’s unheard of in a democratic system. 


Stage 4: Appoint Lieutenants 


When the followership becomes too big the master appoints lieutenants. In a democratic system you appoint departmental managers who have a degree of freedom and responsibility. Lieutenants in an autocratic system don’t. They’re a representation of, and the extended arm of the master.

You usually have two types of lieutenants. You have lieutenants who maintain the internal control and the system, and you have lieutenants who recruit externally. I lived in Saudi Arabia where you can really see these two types of lieutenants. There’s a police force to upkeep the moral law who actually patrol to see if Westerners have more than 10 people in a room or are celebrating Christian holidays. And you have military police that are there to upkeep the external control and the boundaries.  It’s very much the same in a sect, you have moral and military. So the moral arm up keeps the law for the master in the system so that he can become invisible. Then you have military police who upkeep the external boundaries and who are the only ones allowed outside to recruit people. 


Stage 5: External Enemy


To strengthen that external boundaries and to really keep people in the system, the master identifies an external enemy, because as long as you have an external enemy there’s validation to keep the gates closed. In a sect you can very clearly see an “us” and “them”. Sometimes it goes so far that people actually commit mass suicide, as a last stand against being taken over by the Them. 

You see this in countries too, with the enforcement of a power position by closing the external boundaries and then identifying an external enemy. In the States, they’ve had to change their enemy quite a few times. It was Iraq, then it was Russia. And then now it’s China. It’s a strategy to validate the fact that you isolate yourself and that you uphold a mastership within the system. 


Diminish the risk of being overthrown


Sometimes with the establishment of an autocratic system and with lieutenants you bring in the risk of being overthrown because the lieutenants act on your behalf. You bestowed power on them, so the question becomes, “who’s going to control the lieutenants?” Am I my brother’s keeper? The appointment of lieutenants inherently weakens the position of the master, but he’s got to do it because it’s impossible to keep an autocratic system going when it grows. 

So how can you diminish the risk of being overthrown by your lieutenants? In autocratic systems masters impose laws against treason and rewards for snitching on betrayal.  Any time you have a mastership where you establish autocratic systems, you see these laws for treason such as immediate execution, and people are rewarded for snitching. 

The public execution of lieutenants is quite normal as a strategy to keep the closure of boundaries and mastership. I’m talking about this quite clinically, because I’m looking at it as an organizational consultant, not as a human being. I have quite a different reaction humanely. 


Five steps to autocracy


If you follow these five steps (which I’m not recommending by the way) you can create an autocratic system. 

An autocratic system is like a closed system. Imagine if you hermetically seal a balloon, but you keep on blowing it up, it pops. And that’s usually what happens in an autocratic system. It implodes or explodes. There’s a coup for example. What happens to a master in a sect? It’s a closed system, he makes himself scarce so less visible, and lieutenants act on his behalf. The master usually becomes quite paranoid and feels like he can’t trust anyone. They move into a constant paranoia, persecutor position, and increasingly become the victim of their own organization because as they become less visible, the lieutenants more visible, they become less needed. The field is ripe for a coup.

Unfortunately for us, when a lieutenant takes over an autocratic system, they continue an autocracy. It’s very rare that it becomes democratic. Sometimes you see foreign powers supporting lieutenants to do a coup in the hope that democracy will be re-established, but it’s really extremely rare.

The paranoia of the master may become so great that he mass destroys the system. Then foreign powers take over, or there’s an implosion like mass suicides in a sect. This is absolutely tragic, but it happens not only because people become delusional, but as a logical consequence of the organizational development of the system. 

So how can we really make sure that this doesn’t happen? I’m going to talk about that in the next video.

Published On: July 20th, 2020By
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