The idea for this blog flowed from the writing of the book “Leaders & Misleaders – the art of leading like you mean it”.

The tension between leadership and misleadership in the workplace, politics, and our communities affects us all, and misleaders currently seem to have the upper hand. This blog hopes to reverse the trend by boosting awareness and understanding through the sharing of personal experience of leadership and misleadership in the workplace and beyond.

Each fortnight a new issue will be introduced by an article or a brief insight into the leadership challenge. You are invited to share your comments, experiences, and opinions.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Leadership Lessons from the Spanish Civil War

By Andre van Heerden

On 17 July, 2011, the 75th anniversary of the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War will cast a dark shadow over the western world. In what was a dress rehearsal for World War II on the part of Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, the world witnessed ferocious cruelty which was given horrifying scope by technological advances and nihilist ideologies proclaiming that the end justifies the means. With the slaughter of World War I still painfully vivid, the once inconceivable return to the edge of the abyss suddenly became a stark reality. The 1930s saw the ascendancy of misleaders on all sides, and after the Spanish Civil War, another worldwide conflagration was inevitable. In our disillusioned and angry world of today we have much to learn from Spain’s agony.

The bitter emotional upheaval and the intractable hatred spawned by cruel deeds and ideological bigotry have made most of what has been written about the Spanish Civil War notoriously tendentious. Hugh Thomas’s masterpiece, The Spanish Civil War, in its most recent edition, is acknowledged as the most reliable source by commentators on all sides, but its length typically dismays all but the most determined seeker after truth. Modern Times by Paul Johnson has a very good short account, as does Michael Burleigh’s Sacred Causes. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia should be prescribed reading in the senior classes of all schools and the managerial precincts of every business.

In today’s climate of cynicism, everyone has their foolproof formula for utopia or the perfect organisation, but none has the breadth of vision or the empathy to hear the all-too-human concerns and aspirations of other people, and opponents are routinely caricatured and demonised. This is precisely the mood that pervaded Spain and the whole of Europe in the 1930s, and it was a breeding ground for violent conflict. Hugh Thomas, in the preface to The Spanish Civil War, captures the horror of the descent into barbarism:

Within a month nearly a hundred thousand people perished arbitrarily and without trial. Bishops would be torn to pieces and churches profaned. Educated Christians would spend their evenings murdering illiterate peasants and professional men of sensitivity. The majority of these crimes were the work, on both sides, of men convinced that what they were doing was not only right, but noble. Nevertheless these events inevitably caused such hatreds that, when some order was eventually established, it was an order geared solely for the rationalizations of hatred known as war. And it would be quite wrong to think that there was much repugnance at this development. Spaniards of all parties leapt into the war like the cheering, bellicose crowds in the capitals of the rest of Europe in 1914...

It is of the essence of ideologies to make scapegoats of opponents, and to make rational debate impossible; the political correctness of our day is, for example, plainly ideological, trying to make certain things unsayable. For the ideologue, truth is never the criterion; success is. Indeed, truth merely gets in the way of ideology’s guiding principle – “there is no alternative”. Long before the Spanish Civil War broke out, the various factions were doing lots of shouting, but precious little listening, and the gratuitous violence that erupted in 1936 was entirely predictable.

We see much the same thing in politics today – shrieking bigotry on both Left and Right, with even the so-called centrist positions shackled to a soporific utilitarian cocktail of bogus tolerance, political correctness, and brazen self-contradiction. Still worse, we see it in the workplace where both management and employees are most comfortable depicting their relationship as an us-and-them conflict in which the other side is always wrong and not to be trusted.

It is a climate eminently suitable for misleaders, and the reverberations from the Spanish Civil War are ominously familiar. Dishonesty proved more destructive than all the new technological weaponry put together. In the Spanish slaughterhouse, the words of Aeschylus, that in war, truth is the first casualty, were given fresh currency as the ideologies of Fascism and Communism, and the pusillanimity and hypocrisy of the western democracies encouraged a miasma of misleadership. George Orwell, in an essay published in 1953, explained the insidious growth of the lie in Spain:

Early in life I had noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing those lies and eager intellectuals building emotional infrastructures over events that had never happened.

Of course, the nihilism that fuelled both Fascism and Communism embraced deceit as a political weapon, but the western media, politicians, and intellectuals also undermined freedom and democracy with their self-serving distortions of truth. What made matters worse was the bewildering complexity of the opposing alliances in Spain itself, and the willingness of many prominent people on both sides, who knew better, to reduce that complexity to a spurious good versus evil template. There were good people who fought to defend the Republic, and there were good people who tried to bring it down, but where fear and hatred push wisdom and compassion aside, even good people will commit evil deeds.

On the Republican side were ranged Socialists, Communists, Anarchists, Marxists, more moderate Republicans, and Basque and Catalan separatists. The Nationalist umbrella extended uneasily over Monarchists (Carlist and Alfonsist), Falangists and other Fascist elements, and the more conservative Christian Democrats. It is important to note that though the Nationalist groups attracted a lot of Catholic support, many Catholics were pro-Republican. However, the savage Leftist violence against the clergy, and the seizure and destruction of Church property naturally turned Catholic opinion against a regime which permitted and even encouraged these outrages. Seven thousand members of the clergy were murdered, most between July and November 1936.

Though the voting split in the election that preceded the war indicated that Spanish public opinion was divided very evenly, the factions within each side made nonsense of attempts to portray the conflict as a simple clash of two distinct visions for the country. The opponents of the Republic were certainly not all Fascists, and the various Left-wing factions on the Republican side became as much of an obstacle to a Communist coup as the Nationalist forces. In fact, the Fascists and Communists were both small minorities within their respective coalitions.

However, the success of Franco, a traditionalist and a ruthless professional soldier, in welding the disparate Right-wing groupings together, and the considerable resources provided to the Nationalist cause by Hitler and Mussolini, made it easy to identify the enemies of the Republic as Fascists. And that is what brought thousands of volunteers from the western democracies to fight against what was simplistically portrayed as a totalitarian assault on freedom. Stalin, the very last person in the world one would hold up as a champion of freedom, made sure that his propaganda machine exploited this perception to the full, aided and abetted by what was in some cases the naiveté and in others the rank dishonesty of western intellectuals and journalists. The aircraft, tanks, and military personnel he funnelled into Spain, and the political pressure he exerted through his agents in the Spanish Communist Party meant that the Republican cause became as totalitarian driven as the that of the Nationalists. Had Franco’s coup been snuffed out quickly, there would still have been a bloody civil war between the factions of the Left.

Life is never as simple as we like to portray it, not in our homes, workplaces, or communities. This is what exposes the deceit of ideology, the pretence that an anointed few have a magic formula for utopia to which there is no alternative. It also gives the lie to political parties passing off socio-economic wish-lists as infallible programs for progress, and corporate attempts to organise and manipulate people by means of management fads and human resources templates. People, all people, are deeply complex and enigmatic, even to themselves. Put them in groups and communities, and the complexity becomes dense and daunting. That is what makes leadership relentlessly demanding. Empathy, compassion, and forgiveness are qualities that do not come easy to human beings, but they are essential in anyone who hopes to be an effective leader.

One of the most disturbing parallels between Spain in 1936 and our world today was the absence of a bona fide vision for the country as a whole. None of the visions held up by the miscellany of misleaders in Spain were blueprints for a better Spain for all; they were all for the narrow and exclusive interests of specific segments. Outside of Spain, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, of course, built their visions on lies, while the western democracies shamelessly eschewed principle in favour of self-preservation.

Without a clearly defined vision with an integrated strategy to achieve it, people in authority are misleading others from the start. In Spain, thousands died in the belief that they were simply opposing either Fascism or Communism, while in reality, both sides came to be controlled by totalitarian thugs. Today, ask anyone in the West what the vision for their country or their corporation is, and the response will be either cynical or apathetic. Vision is for the future, and the isolated individual of post-modern society has been conditioned to see life as an eternal present in which immediate gratification is the sole measure of success.

Spain proved for the umpteenth time in history that leadership stands or falls on integrity, and therefore truth, without which words like vision and mission and strategy and commitment and communication can have no meaning. And that opens the door to chaos and violence. We would do well to be much more vigilant in this regard. We are too complacent in our presumption that civilised standards will prevail in our homes, workplaces, and communities regardless of the constant erosion and frequent violations that our indifference allows to go unchallenged. When good people abdicate their responsibility to lead, misleadership is given free rein.