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Michael Useem
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Michael Useem

Michael Useem is Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Leadership and Change Management at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

What you get when you give power away

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?

This article is coauthored by Kenneth Adelman and Michael Useem.

Not that we want any of the autocrats to retain state power. They should all consider packing their carry-on bags for a one-way trip to the Maldives. But if they had wanted create a reputational power, to be long remembered for what they have done for their country rather than themselves, they would have been wise to have given away their state power long before the necessity now of heading for their last flight out.

Here's the irony, with much experience and research to back it up. Giving away is one of the surest ways to gain back. Companies that are more generous with their contributions to the community on average prove more profitable. Managers that delegate more authority to their subordinates acquire more authority with their subordinates. Governments that vest more democratic control in their citizens instill greater support among their citizens.

If the autocrats of the Middle East or anywhere had been thinking strategically, they would have taken such steps years ago, giving away to gain back, not for themselves but for their country's legacy. Had they brought that future into the present, they would not now be needing to purchase the one-way ticket out.

This Shakespeare realized 400-plus years ago. In Merchant of Venice is a contest for the fair Portia's hand. The first two choices emphasize gaining and getting but they prove to be wrong. The third answer demands giving. That's the right answer, and it wins her hand.

By Michael Useem

 |  February 22, 2011; 10:15 AM ET
Category:  Political leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Tough it out | Next: What you get when you give power away

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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!

e.g.,
I would ensure that "black" women and girls feel better about themselves whenever they abandon loving the natural texture of thier own hair and instead straighten it to appear more "white" American - like the First Lady and her children: Sasha and Malia (all in the best interest of the children of course)


What you get when you give power away to judeo-christian white supremacist is alot of pollution, extinction of animals and migration patterns, and straightened haired African American house negroes who would just as soon keep "Indians" on reservations and give tax breaks to the wealthiest white corporations as any judeo-christian white supremacist would. lol

Posted by: stephendavid2002 | February 27, 2011 7:12 AM
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The Billionaire Dictator Retirement Package!
The only way out for a autocratic dictator is to run in the middle of the night with loads of money stashed away.
If you stay, the next autocratic leader will fear your potential to return and have you done away with.
On the other hand, the democratically elected replacement will want your head on a platter, as punishment for all the things you did as an autocratic leader to get/stay in power.
Take your money and get away while you still can.

Posted by: natecar | February 25, 2011 9:17 PM
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I don't think it is necessarily either go down or get tough. A smart autocrat should have a sense of where the breaking point is for his subjects: after how much protesting will they initiate some sort of revolution? The autocrat could engage the people and compromise, giving into some of their demands. When he does this, the smart autocrat should draw some international attention to his good grace in the hopes that he might retain some international support should he need to use any force on the protesters. He should realize that there is no hope of retaining 100% of his power, and settle for 80% rather than risking it all.
But then again, we should ask ourselves: who's the last autocratic leader in the Middle East that we all thought was "smart"?

Posted by: RobertZider | February 25, 2011 4:56 PM
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I don't think it is necessarily either go down or get tough. A smart autocrat should have a sense of where the breaking point is for his subjects: after how much protesting will they initiate some sort of revolution? The autocrat could engage the people and compromise, giving into some of their demands. When he does this, the smart autocrat should draw some international attention to his good grace in the hopes that he might retain some international support should he need to use any force on the protesters. He should realize that there is no hope of retaining 100% of his power, and settle for 80% rather than risking it all.
But then again, we should ask ourselves: who's the last autocratic leader in the Middle East that we all thought was "smart"?

Posted by: RobertZider | February 25, 2011 4:54 PM
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The best strategy for holding onto power without harming the country is to involve the public in crafting the framework that rewards and punishes behavior that models or breaks the rules.

Think back to your teachers that ran really successful classrooms. Chances are they had a clearly defined set of rules. Kids like rules; they make them feel safe. Adults are no different. But the rules cannot simply be imposed—they must prohibit behavior that poses a threat to the people and promote behavior that cultivates an atmosphere of mutual respect between what Weber calls the target (the acted upon) and agent (the one performing the action). When teachers allow students to take part in establishing classroom decorum, they make themselves accountable, have a sense of respect for their educator, and have a fair idea of what to expect in return.

Autocratic rulers so often dismiss this inclusion. They err on the side of paternalism, and they rule with the iron fist. As Professors Adelman and Useem have illustrated with the Merchant of Venice reference, giving is key. Portia sums it up quite nicely with: “And earthly power doth then show likest God’s When mercy seasons justice.” For an autocrat, power can reach divine peaks if he only gives mercy first.

Posted by: calebbrown | February 24, 2011 10:30 PM
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As Professor Useem states here, the autocratic Middle Eastern leader has boxed himself into a corner. His methodology of holding onto power to take and take from his people is unsustainable, creating an inherently unstable state of affairs which eventually, if these protests are any indication, must come to a head. In this scenario no hardline autocrat can continue to hold onto power without harming the country. He may try to negotiate, but the image of fear and despotism he has created runs counter to that possibility. An autocrat's success at negotiation will vary - and even then, only if he agrees to an eventual transition out of power. He has boxed himself with extremes, and now no recourse he can take is painless. He must either give power totally, or suppress the protests.

Posted by: JustinNg | February 24, 2011 1:39 PM
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There is no easy solution for leaders in this extremely precarious position. In the case of Mubarak, who might have put a stop to the protests had the military not sided with the people, it clearly worked against him that the protests were allowed to go on for so long. But taking the case of Qaddafi, in the long run, there will be enormous costs to the violent suppression of peaceful protests - he is certain to lose the support of key players in the international system, as well as exacerbate the people's built-up anger and grievances against him. On the other hand, transition to democracy and delegation of authority lead to less concentrated power, which is not in the best interests of these autocratic leaders. Given the immense proof of the power of the masses, however, autocrats should take note of recent events and realize that even in an autocratic system, the support of the people is necessary to truly legitimize one's power and authority.

Posted by: juliaretta | February 23, 2011 4:24 PM
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This is more or less the answer I would have given - if I had been an autocratic ruler, I would definitely have started a transition. One good question is, out of all the autocratic rulers in history, how many have voluntarily started a transition towards democracy?

Posted by: weiwentg | February 23, 2011 9:51 AM
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