Benefits and liabilities of a benign dictator

I have been thinking about the value and danger of a benign dictator. No, I don’t have secret plans to take over the world. Well…maybe I do but I am well aware of the fact that no one will let me. The real reason I am thinking about this is the result of a book I am reading, called, The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, by Simon Baron-Cohen (Basic Books, 2011). In addition, I have been thinking about a couple of situations where systems revolved around one person, a cult of personality. These systems worked well and though no one would have referred to the leader as a dictator, the leader held the vast majority of the power and control of the system and, in fact, did dictate how others would function.


When you think of a dictator, few positive images come to mind. Maybe you think of Hitler or one of the recently dead world leaders. Not too many warm fuzzies, right? However, dictators or system controllers do have positive value.

  • Things get done. When you don’t have to rely on a committee or a popular vote, you can get things done. The person in power decides something should happen…and it happens. No need for it to get balled up in red tape. If you have ever watched good ideas die in committee you probably fantasized about being given the power to make stuff happen.
  • Legalism can be avoided. We’ve all seen times where  the strict application of a law doesn’t make sense. One law-breaker should get leniency and another should receive the maximum penalty. Statutes and rules rarely give us the kind of wise latitude to make these decisions but a person in power can make decisions that are in the best interests of individuals and communities.
  • A little fear may motivate. Knowing that you serve at the pleasure of the president (or leader) may help you keep alert to slippage. If you know that your leader demands results and if you know that you can’t just lie around and get results, you will likely work a bit harder.

But of course with efficiency, wisdom, and power located in one person, liabilities become obvious,

  • Dictators rarely think their decisions are wrong. If you are inclined to trust your own wisdom, you are less likely to seek out opposing viewpoints. The inner circle of “friends” may not choose to point out when you are wrong for fear of losing status or more. The person in sole power believes they are making the right decisions for the right reasons and will not notice when wisdom fails–as it always does with human frailties.
  • Utilitarianism may not be a good long-term strategy. Powerful leaders may start out with good ideas: raise the status of the poor, achieve safety and stability, efficient production, etc. But finite human wisdom often leads to utilitarian decisions–doing what works or what gets the best result now. So, a president may decide to shut down opposition viewpoints because in doing so people stop bickering and start doing other things that might be more productive. A pastor may decide to coverup a date-rape by his cherished youth pastor. In doing so, he may maintain a sense of comfort for the whole church community. Parents may feel at ease around this leader, the youth group may grow, the media may see the church in a positive light. But, there will be collateral damage. Utilitarian decisions rarely weigh the consequences of those decisions.
  • Empathy erosion will happen. When minority voices are squelched and when groupthink of the inner circle helps a dictator continue to make utilitarian decisions based on short-term goals, the first thing that will die is empathy. The Science of Evil book gets at this issue of empathy erosion. The author explores empathy from biological and sociological perspectives. A worthy read as this author has looks at differences between zero empathy (positive) in individuals with autism and zero empathy (negative) in individuals with personality disorders. He explores how some are able to move from desire to demand and so ignore the impact of our actions on another.


Filed under Abuse, counseling science, Psychology

4 responses to “Benefits and liabilities of a benign dictator

  1. Another word for dictator is king. Living in a kingdom is definitley the best form of government…if you have a good king. As Christians we live in a kingdom with a perfect king, Jesus Christ. We tend to get caught up in constitutional government, but our real allegiance is to our king, and our real joy is living in the kingdom.

  2. I’ve always liked the Roman position of authority that they called “dictator.” In a time of national crisis, such as a war, the Senate gave all authority to whoever was best suited to unilaterally deal with the crisis, with the understanding that they would give it up their power when the crisis was over.

    It didn’t always work out (like Julius Caesar who became “dictator for life”), but sometimes it did. Cincinnatus who was principled enough to give up his authority after sixteen days and returned to being a farmer. If we had modern day dictators like him, I think many of the country’s problems would be solved.

  3. Eunkyung Ro

    I’ve bought this book from just now, downloaded into my kindle.

  4. Pingback: Leadership Thought #305 – Most Dictators Meet The Same Fate « Ed Robinson's Blog

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