Kim Jong-un watching industrial lubricant being produced.

Managers: Please Don’t Lead Like Kim Jong-un

North Korea made the news again recently when Kim Jong-nam, the brother of North Korea’s supreme leader, was assassinated in a shocking, yet bizarre fashion in Malaysia. This isn’t the first time the North Korean government has assassinated someone who spoke out against the ruling Kim regime, and unless Kim Jong-un is disposed in the next 20 minutes, it won’t be the last.

I’ve been fascinated by North Korea for a long time. It’s the last true Communist cult-of-personality state in existence, and although there are some aspects of the country that are quite absurd, there’s nothing funny about the hardships that the North Korean people face. Being an American, I’ve luckily never had to experience living under a regime like North Korea’s. North Korea is in the shape its in due to total domination by an unchecked megalomaniac. There is no way that any country or organization can succeed if all of the organization’s resources are directed toward stroking the ego of the person in power.

As an American, the only similarity to the North Korean situation that I have is working under some managers who, like Kim, were total megalomaniacs. No, I didn’t have to call them “Dear Leader,” but like in North Korea, everything I did was expected to glorify the ruling “regime.” Not surprisingly, the cultures in the offices in question were toxic, and the morale was unimaginably low. Nobody likes working for a dictator!

Note to Leaders: It’s Really, Seriously Not (All) About You

There’s an old saying that goes “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to. Really, the saying should go “absolute power wielded by a megalomaniac corrupts absolutely.” It’s true that positions of power are typically desired by megalomaniacal types because they feel the rules of society don’t apply to them, and besides, they could make better rules if only they had total control. More distressing still is the fact that megalomaniacs are more willing to fight dirty than people who are selfless, so they tend to acquire these positions of power more frequently.

Like the Kims, some leaders create their culture with the sole purpose of elevating their stature and garnering attention. In some instances, the whole company can be created for that purpose! Yes, business owners and executives take on a certain degree of risk and deserve credit for that. But when your company is doing the professional equivalent of building giant monuments in the CEO’s honor, there’s a problem. Yes, leaders matter: but their personal glorification should not be the primary reason for an organization’s existence.

Don’t Fear Bosses, Fear the Fear Tactic

I’d like to touch on the “boss vs. leader” dichotomy that’s been covered ad-nauseum by bloggers all over the web. In this dichotomy, “bosses” are regarded as slave driving, me-first tyrants and “leaders” are regarded as selfless motivators who treat their employees like equals. I believe the differences between those terms have been somewhat oversimplified and that the day-to-day realities of leadership are too complicated to allow us to put people in one of two boxes. (On a side note, I frankly think that sometimes you need a “boss” type personality to get things done on a project level.) However, there is one common aspect of the “boss” stereotype that I’d like to identify as being particularly toxic, and that is the use of fear as a motivational tactic.

Fear Is the Culture-Killer

Fear does indeed make people act, that’s why all dictators use it. But why do leaders choose to rule by fear when there are so many instances of fear-based leadership cultures ending in disaster? The answer is very likely psychological, and if a person is ruling their domain through the use of fear, they’re probably not very interested in changing that behavior. If that’s the situation you find yourself in, start looking today for an opportunity to “defect” to a company with a more humane and healthy culture. A culture of fear can and will kill an office’s creativity, and its productivity will die along with it. There’s nothing more soul-sucking than seeing co-workers crying or stressed for no good reason other than the boss needing to bully someone to boost their ego. There will be no great professional  triumphs in an office like that, and nobody will win– except for the boss.

Sadly, North Koreans can be killed for insulting their “dear leader” (or even for not clapping or crying at the dictated moment.) Luckily, your boss (probably) won’t kill you. But they could put you out of a job or wreck your career. Bad bosses are just dictators with fewer resources, and although having a terrible boss isn’t nearly as bad as suffering under an oppressive regime like the Kims, it can cause serious misery for you and your career. Again: if you’re in that situation, get out while you can and don’t look back.

And folks in charge, do us all a favor: don’t lead like Kim Jong-un.


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