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Howard Gardner
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Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is the Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Senior Director of Harvard Project Zero.

Tough it out

Question: Put yourself in the shoes of an autocratic Middle Eastern leader: Let peaceful protests continue and you could easily wind up out of power, like Egypt's Mubarak. Or get tough with the protests and you'll certainly lose popular and international support. What's the best strategy for holding onto power without harming the country?

If you want to hold onto power as an autocrat, you have no choice but to 'tough it out.' In the long run, you or your descendants will be overthrown violently and you may not even have access to the billions that you have stashed away abroad.

If you want to retain some authority, and if you are truly dedicated to your country, then you need to lay out a clear path forward and take concrete steps immediately to establish your seriousness. And so, for example, if you want to move toward a constitutional monarchy, you need to appoint a credible prime minister, with a limited term; empower him or her to make decisions; and install a process of succession for that prime minister. Absent such a credible move, no one will take your posturing seriously.

By Howard Gardner

 |  February 22, 2011; 10:09 AM ET
Category:  Crisis leadership , Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Democracy will be met | Next: What you get when you give power away

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and if i ever had a member of the "afro" race as a token leader, i would make sure the female members of his family 'whip' their hair up to look as if they don't prefer to be a member of the "race" they are but prefer to wear their hair as if they were a member of my race...

Posted by: stephendavid2002 | February 27, 2011 6:24 AM
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i would wipe out the indigenous population and place the remnants of them on reservations... then i would enslave whatever "races" required to build monuments to the great racists of my race... then i would free the slaves except abide by policies that keep them - except for a token few - in obviously subservient positions (of course the tokens would serve my agenda - which i and my media would never refer to as "racist"...)...

I would create the illusion of "equal protection" under law - except that “When the custody of children [or anything else I decide...] is the question … the best interest of the children [or some other interest of my choosing...] {shall be} the paramount fact. [Constitutional and inalienable] rights of father and mother [or whatever class of citizens i declare...] sink into insignificance before that.” Kartman v. Kartman, 163 Md. 19, 22,161 A. 269 (1932) - the names of the cases would be subject to the victims that come before my court...

in short, i would run my nation so that it appears to provide "freedom", balance of political powers, and "justice" except that only the wealthy of my race would enjoy freedom - so long as they 'served both to discriminate against ethnic minorities and to maintain advantages and benefits for the members of my race.'

I would do what "white" Americans do!

lol

Posted by: stephendavid2002 | February 27, 2011 6:19 AM
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Still, however, finding someone to blame has been the tried and true method of tyrants for centuries. Jews work fabulously well. You see, the person need not actually be Jewish, but simply have some relatives who are, or, barring that, have acquired (read that has "the police put in the person's possession") evidence of Judaizing tendencies, such as a Menorah or even Matzoh (best encrusted with some blood). The Jews who admitted they were Jewish left Libya some time ago, but the "secret" Jews likely number 1 or 2 million.

Posted by: Martial | February 26, 2011 12:15 AM
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First and foremost, find someone to blame.

Posted by: Martial | February 25, 2011 11:34 PM
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In the face of unrest from the people, autocrats must understand the power that they hold will not lead to the improvement of their country, whether they 'tough it out' or not. I agree with Gardner that what an autocrat may prize the most, preserved power for himself and his posterity, will eventually be taken away if the pattern of wielding selfish power is continued.

In taking the steps that decentralize power and provide representation, an autocrat will need to confer increased power and control to the people. Taking this step of reconciliation will inherently undermine the power originally held by the autocrat. Therefore, it is impossible for an autocrat to hold onto power without harming the country. This is a lesson Mubarak had to learn at the cost of hundreds of lives. Hopefully, other autocrats will recognize that peaceful protests will not remain peaceful if they do not listen to the people.

Posted by: mirandawang19 | February 25, 2011 9:02 AM
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A strong leader will neither let peaceful protests simply continue, nor will he crack down on dissenters by "getting tough." A leader should be flexible and open to change- he should listen to the ideas that grassroots organizations have to give and be willing to accept bottom-up advice for leadership. Leaders who simply ride out their terms as lame ducks after losing popular support lose their credibility and above all, ability to influence their followers. In addition, those who simply coerce their followers into submission become oppressive and violent, risking their leadership and gambling it away for raw power instead.
Gardner makes a good point when he says that, in order to maintain authority, a leader must establish a clear path forward and lay out concrete goals to establish legitimacy. Yet this plan of action should not revolve around the sole needs of the leader- it should also include the opinions of the dissenters. If the leader fails to be flexible and take others' ideas into account, he will undoubtedly lose his power down the road.

Posted by: catherineyuh | February 25, 2011 3:13 AM
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I agree with Gardner's stance that the leaders must "tough it out". There is no easy way for an unwanted autocratic leader to maintain power and popularity in the midst of an angry revolution, be it peaceful or violent. If the public is demanding your oust, your only options are to comply with their demands, ignore them to the best of your ability in the hope that their effort will eventually die out, or use violence to forcibly end the protests. However, if the public says it will only be satisfied when the leader abdicates his power, any effort to keep it will just fuel their rage. In this situation, there is no way for both parties to be satisfied! Something has got to give.

Posted by: kaylaopall | February 25, 2011 1:20 AM
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A strong leader is an aware leader and in this case, these Middle Eastern leaders need to be aware of the situation and acknowledge the state of affairs by finding a dignified balance. For a leader to dismiss the protests and continue his rule as is; undoubtedly, those currently peaceful protests would boil over like they did in Egypt. Middle Eastern leaders should learn from the recent occurrences in Egypt and realize that the masses want to be righted for the wrongs and won’t stop until they get what they want and so as a leader, it is necessary to recognize their desires for change. The only just reaction would to act in a decorous manner and repent for the errors of the oppressive autocratic regime. Obviously, the people are dissatisfied with the way decision-making has been handled and will not be content until things are specifically reformed. This is a precarious problem and it cannot be simply solved with any one action or maybe at all, but to allow for the ruling individual, as a leader, to gain power, in terms of reputation and honor, it would be most wise to admit to previous mistakes and, instead, work for what’s best for the country as a whole.

Posted by: sallyannzhou | February 24, 2011 9:45 PM
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I agree with Mr. Gardner that an autocratic leader must take serious steps to usher in change if he wants to maintain power. Also, these steps must not only be viewed as serious in the leader's mind, but in the minds of his followers and critics as well. Thus, Mubarak's initial attempt to hand power over to Vice President Suleiman, which Mubarak may have felt was a significant gesture to the protesters, was not seen as such by the Egyptian people and ultimately proved a failure.

Otherwise, as Mr. Gardner notes, an autocratic ruler is free to remain steadfast in the face of protests, like Gadhafi in Libya. Time will only tell if Mr. Gardner is correct in predicting a violent overthrow of such a regime.

Posted by: mattwasserman | February 24, 2011 3:19 PM
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Another way that a Middle Eastern leader can maintain power is by always remembering the importance of symbols. As symbolic analysts, people of a nation look towards their leaders to react in ways that are understood to be meaningful and representative of underlying important issues. For example, when the Queen of England did not lower the flag to half-staff after Princess Diana passed away, the people of England were outraged; they, as symbolic analysts, were dissatisfied with the lack of acknowledgement the Queen displayed. For a Middle Eastern leader, using specific symbols or doing symbolic acts of generosity or beneficence towards the people of their country, may be crucial in re-establishing a relationship with them, as symbols go a long way in trusting a leader.

Posted by: lizpyoung | February 24, 2011 1:12 AM
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Agreed. The convictions of a strong leader must be, like the theorist James MacGregor Burns, in his book titled "Leadership", autocratic leaders must recognize the arrays of motives and goals in their followers, appeal to those motives by word and action, and strengthen those motives and goals in order to increase their power. Autocrats must demonstrate in good faith, their common goal and purpose shared with their followers, which is, as Gardner notes, the shared dedication to their country. In times of unrest, autocrats must ask themselves, how have our individual goals and purposes diverged, and how can I demonstrate and move to bring them together? Not easy questions, but the result, like a prime minister, are practical, prudent, and responsible ways to manage their leadership.

Posted by: alexyoung | February 23, 2011 10:10 PM
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Leaders are willing to make decisions and take responsibility. A failure to do so represents a failure of leadership. Leaders often become deposed because of their unwillingness to make long term decisions. The aptitude and eagerness to make such choices are the factors which distinguish those who rule. The ability to make these judgments accurately can determine the success of a leader. However, even in times of failure, rulers should 'stick to their guns,' and take steps to establish their authority. They will either continue to make correct decisions and maintain power, or continue to fail, leading to their, probably inevitable, downfall. Credible exercise of power is in a sense the essence of leadership.

Posted by: sheppatterson | February 23, 2011 9:24 PM
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