REVIEWED: The Benevolent Dictator

Traditional leadership development approaches do not work. That much is clear from the results: despite a nearly endless multitude of books, theories, and recommendations, the state of leadership is dismal. This failure comes from a nearly-equally-endless multitude of errors, and The Benevolent Dictator by Dr. Justin Hamrick makes most of them.

The book is structured around the concept of a “benevolent dictator,” a leader who is different from the regular dictator. The benevolent dictator is everything good in a leader: visionary communicator with the right words, independent decision-maker who listens only to the right ideas, firm enforcer of just the right degree accountability, expert in every subject.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the ideas in this book. If one was to have absolutely no exposure to leadership development or the characteristics of an ideal leader, this might be an interesting work. Of course, to be a human being alive in the year 2021 in this state would require being raised by wolves, given the prevalence of leadership ideas.

What the book lacks is an argument, a structure, or a purpose. There isn’t anything that separates the concept of “benevolent dictator” from any of the established leadership theories from which Dr. Hamrick draws. Like these theories, this book describes an abstract outcome, an ideal leader who does everything right, without recognizing the difficult compromises required of leaders and the process by which individual human beings learn to balance and negotiate the real world in which these compromises must occur.

The trouble lies, I believe, with the root problem facing leadership development: what do we mean by leader? What do we include and what do we exclude? If data analytics (189-214) are an important leadership skill, then would not international trade, liability, intellectual property, and tax law also be important? And so on, ad infinitum. Rather than describe what leaders do, the traditional approach describes the manner in which they do it. Not surprisingly, these are all good characteristics for the good guys and bad characteristics for everyone else.

Moreover, the approach in The Benevolent Dictator is simply to describe, not to teach or develop. Dr. Hamrick makes no effort to discern how an individual might get to the perfect outcome as a leader. If we could become excellent leaders by being told what excellent leadership looks like, then the world would be full of leadership. That’s not the reality of human growth, of course, and the deficiency makes the book ineffective as a tool to improve our personal, or anyone else’s, performance as a leader.

Even worse to my eyes, the failure becomes a tool to exclude people from being leaders. The argument appears, “If you do not act in this ideal manner, then you are not leading. You are not a leader.” This is perhaps the greatest sin of leadership development, because it ignores the way that all members of the group shape shared performance and affect the final product. Leadership is not an exclusive privilege of a job title, nor is it something that takes only one form. Leaders are not the same as every other group member, but what makes them leaders is