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  • Writer's picturePhil Cole

What we already know - musings on authoritarianism

The Washington Post reviewed "The Harpers Perennial Resistance Library", a collection of famous writings about humanity swinging between liberty and authoritarianism. While I encourage everyone to read these works, I think Michael Dirda misses the real point.

We already know that people are capable of believing in, and following, great evil. What matters is the process by which that evil can gain the authority to make people follow to it.

In the Milgram experiments, it's not interesting that people will shock each other because a doctor in a white coat tells them to do so. We don't need an experiment to demonstrate what history shows with great clarity. What we need to understand is how the doctor gets the authority to instruct such abuse.

In leadership terms, we know that a vision conveyed through relationships can bring people together to do incredible things. Incredible in this case can mean either good or bad; the vision determines the nature of the work. Some leaders believe in a change for the better, for more peace or prosperity or equality or opportunity; others believe in violence, subjugation, destruction.

The work of the leader is the line between an idea of a change - a vision - and the willingness of other human beings to take action to make that vision become real.

That line, that connection is not only the definition of leadership, and the focus of our work - it is the opportunity to disrupt evil, to stop those with visions of hate from turning their visions into reality. In Milgram's terms, we must undercut the doctor's "white coat authority" before he brings in the first subject.

If we depend on humans to not follow authority to evil ends, we have already lost - for we know they will follow, and willingly. Rather, we must find weakness in their leadership, in the connections between vision and relationships and learning.

I fear that these questions will become increasingly relevant in the next few years or decades. I do not have these answers, but I believe understanding leadership is the first step towards finding them.

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