Attila on Leadership Diseases



Dr. Wess Robert’s best-selling book “Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun” in the 1980s was followed in 1993 with “Victory Secrets of Attila the Hun”. As his protagonist Dr. Roberts chose the brutal barbarian who sacked seemingly impregnable Rome, sending the Roman Empire into a tailspin from which it never recovered. Attila, chronicled by Roman scribes, is believed to have said words to the effect, “every leader must choose the best people, train them well, develop them into competent workers, provide them with direction, challenge them with responsibilities, reward their individual and group contributions, treat them humanely and in this way lead his people to victory”. Winning is not only important, in the national context it is everything, there are no prizes for second place. True for all forms of leadership, Attila’s logic is very much applicable 17 centuries later. All our leaders, civil and military both, need to be given a pep talk on “Leadership diseases and remedies thereof”.

The first thing to guard against is “avarice dysorexia”, a perverted appetite for acquiring illegal wealth. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has dealt with this disease with reasonable success but since accountability has not been applied in a fair and judicious manner to all sections of society (the judiciary and the Armed Forces are exempt) it may lose its credibility. “Physician, heal thyself” must be a prime consideration. One can talk about the obvious in procurement contracts and there is always the institutional corruption in real estate in the military-run Defence Housing entities. The laws of the land must be applicable equally, corruption cannot be condoned because of rank or station in life.

One must worry about “baseless anxiety”. Since our intelligence system is geared to developing real and/or imagined “conspiracy theories” most commanders are usually very worried men. While information is extremely important, both about friend and foe alike, one must have the ability to discern truth from false é and come down like a ton of bricks on falsehood and those who disseminate it. How many intelligence men have we taken to task for either bring ignorant about what’s happening or simply fabricating lies? Next is “compliance compulsory”. It must be ensured that orders given out are correctly understood and those carrying out the orders must have the ability to do so. Additional support, if required, must be provided and the orders must be in conformity with the national interest. Young leaders are usually uncertain about their newly acquired power and this must be recognized. One cannot afford to be surprised and outraged or issue more orders that will complicate the issue.

Another issue which is extremely worrying is “corollary constriction”, i.e. being committed to one’s own point of view must not mean that we become impatient with those who are not. One can deal wisely with good advice but it is for the leader to fend off bad advice from close aides and friends in the “inner circle”. A good leader must surround himself with smart aides and specialized advisors rendering good advice since one can’t be master of everything. These aides and advisors are required to adapt to the changes in the world, risk or becoming obsolete. “Courage dystrophy” is another disease which all leaders must avoid. Risk-taking is the nature of leaderships, it is better to be in trouble rather than be indecisive. Those who dodge responsibility, “denial dependency”, must be removed from office. One must be accountable and not avoid blame, that is beneath the dignity of command. In the same sequence those who have “empathy amnesia” are usually over-anxious to impress their superiors with their ability to get the job done. A leader’s job is to improve the lot of his command, not indulge in improving his own lot.

While it is required to deal with subordinates who threaten authority, insecurity must not be allowed to overwhelm maturity. There is a tendency to be pervasively suspicious of one’s colleagues and subordinates, this “factual paranoia” must be shunned. Unless key advisors end close associates have the leader’s confidence, they cannot be effective in their jobs. If their security is not threatened, they will not be a threat to the security of the leader. One must not be overly cautious. Consider the lessons Field Marshal Slim imparted in his “Unofficial History”, “do not take counsel of your fears” and “it pays to be bold”. Those who have “failure phobia” tend not to take risks and have to settle for mediocrity. Being safe does not guarantee success, in fact one sacrifices the possibility of success in avoiding failure. One may also fall behind in one’s action plan because of “focus neurosis”, anything that takes the focus from one’s aims and objectives conflicts with reality, wastes times, consumes resources, and creates anxiety. Than there are some who tend to consider themselves more brilliant with every promotion, “know-it-alls” who in reality accomplish less because they have “frontal lobe fixation” and refuse to draw on the advice and intelligence available around them. This also calls for shunning “inflamed egos”, an illusion of having achieved high rank completely through one’s own efforts, that rising to senior position was only a matter of fulfilling one’s destiny. Dr Robert says “your persistent delusion of self-importance is poor compensation for being grounded in reality”. Those suffering from “insensitivity complex” become so engrossed in themselves that they overlook the interests of their colleagues and subordinates. While chiefs do need a modicum of insensitivity so that they can make hard decisions in the larger interests of the community and the nation, the sure way of avoiding insensitivity is to have advisors who will have the courage to speak up instead of allowing things to simmer and end up in disaster. Leaders have a tendency to shoot the messenger bringing bad news.

Our leaders, political, military and civilian, seem to live in an “invulnerability illusion”, this is idiotic thinking as everyone is vulnerable. Without exception, no one is invincible. Leaders must avoid “loose lips”, disclosing confidential information about plans, conditions, particularly to impress female company. This affliction is not confined to South Asia, history is strewn with the high and mighty succumbing to this weakness. Add alcohol and one has a potential disaster, wine loosens the lips more. Many leaders become consumed by a desire for absolute power, this is called “omnipotence obsession”, unbridled ambition that may ultimately alienate colleagues and subordinates. Those affected by “popularity paralysis” are not ready to take tough, unpopular decisions that are good for the community and the nation. Those who have the courage to make the right decisions and shun cheap popularity will avoid the poor results of indecisiveness. The “predatory inclination” among some is dangerous, one of our more brilliant PMs was so affected by this insecurity he used to deliberately target the weak. This gave him a fatal sense of superiority. Coupled with this is “sadistic gratification” where one makes the innocent and helpless suffer needlessly. This disease is rampant among the rich and the powerful.

Then there is the widespread disease in which leaders look busy and do nothing, “productivity charade”. This leads us to “recognition rigor mortis” which means one needs constantly to be flattered on one’s achievements instead of publicly acknowledging the hard work and effort of colleagues and subordinates. There are those who believe in “suffering syndrome”, a false and chronic conviction that one’s command functions best when they are miserable, not so! Human beings perform best when they are happy.

Leaders need to give themselves time on a daily basis to reflect on the fundamental principles of good leadership viz (1) keep a sense of humour and not take themselves too seriously (2) stay mentally flexible as rigidity of mind inhibits progress (3) develop good relations with one’s colleagues and subordinates (4) focus on helping other one oneself (5) maintain a balance of mind, body and heart in both public and private life, work and reaction and lastly (6) enjoy whatever one does, avoiding both complacency and excess.

The true leader exhorts his colleagues that they are his comrades, that they have to take risks together and prosper from mutual support, the cause of Pakistan being greater than anyone living or dead. A true leader is one who will practice what he preaches!

Mr. Ikram Sehgal is Publisher and Managing Editor of Defence Journal (Pakistan).

Buy the related book (s) now:

Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun - by Wess Roberts