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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Leadership Lessons from Fidel Castro

Any firm in a free market run Fidel's way would soon declare bankruptcy.

Today every notable, living, dead, and fictional, has a leadership book.

Wes Roberts penned Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, even though Attila himself left no writings. Modern historians know little about the real Attila save that he could summarily execute followers who failed to execute orders, a motivation tool any modern corporate chieftain would envy. To show that he is not stuck in the past, Roberts later coauthored Make It So: Leadership Secrets from Star Trek the Next Generation, finding Captain Picard to practice delegation more and more effectively than Captain Kirk.   

I propose a new book honoring Castro, who took over and ran a huge privately held firm for a half-century.Learning from the most famous corporate lawyer in American history, Donald Phillips wrote Lincoln on Leadership: Executive Strategies for Tough Times. Of course, as Jefferson Davis would have pointed out in his own leadership book, it’s easy to lead in a war when you have twice as many guns and soldiers as the competition.

In Mother Teresa, CEO, Ruma Bose and Lou Faust show that CEOs must recruit employees who share their passion for the company. Deeper into the religion as a business theme, Mike Murdock wrote The Leadership Secrets of Jesus. Jesus was a problem solver, planner, and master salesman who believed in his product. Jesus showed the resilience to come back from setbacks like death. To motivate employees, he would literally walk on water. Jesus would have succeeded even without his famous father.

For those who think they are Jesus, there’s President-elect Trump’s bestselling Art of the Deal. After all, leadership involves negotiation, as Trump will soon find leading Republicans in Congress. Rebecca Shambaugh published Leadership Secrets of Hillary Clinton, for anyone who wants to learn from the one leader as unpopular as The Donald.

In this vein, I propose a new book honoring a revered, recently deceased leader, an obscure country lawyer who through hard work and calculation took over and ran a huge privately held firm for a half-century. Here are the key points from Lider Maximo (“Supreme Leader”): Nine Leadership Lessons from Fidel Castro.

Lesson 1: Know oneself. From an early age, Fidel knew the rules didn’t apply to him. That gave him the inner strength to break promises time and time again. For example, while seeking power he promised elections, but on taking power declared “elections, what for?”

Lesson 2:  Learn from others’ mistakes. While the Batista government gave the rebel Castro amnesty after just two years in jail, Castro never made the mistake of mercy. He executed 600 opponents in the months after taking power with 15-17,000 more in the decades after, according to The Black Book of Communism. Still more perished in prison, civil unrest, or seeking alternative employment as boat people, which suggests a third lesson.

Lesson 3: Terminate opponents. You need kill only a few before the supply runs dry.

Lesson 4: Terminate supporters, especially those with talent. Castro sent Che Guevara overseas to fight, where he conveniently died. After wars abroad alienated popular General Arnaldo Ochoa, Castro had him arrested and killed on trumped up charges. Terminating talent keeps them from challenging you, and messages that capable people are safe only if they leave Cuba.  

Lesson 5: Control the means of production. Lider Maximo owned the economy, so only his supporters ate well and got good medical care. Similarly, managed media offered no opposition.

Lesson 7: Style beats substance.Lesson 6: Gather information. The Interior Ministry keeps a file on each Cuban, and recruits chivatos (informers) by the thousands. Cubans couldn’t say what they thought about Fidel because he might be listening.  

Lesson 7: Style beats substance. Fidel perfected the art of looking like an underdog guerrilla leader, even while enjoying the luxury of a whole country at his disposal. Other Latin American nations made far more progress on health, wealth, and literacy, but their leaders are little celebrated. Only Castro has a cachet across the globe.

Lesson 8: Make scapegoats. Castro blamed his crumbling economy and health system on America – what Cuban dared disagree?  

Lesson 9: Develop patrons. From the old Soviet Union to oil-rich Venezuela to easily duped foreigners, Castro cultivated others for sufficient support to keep his family firm going.

Castro prospered, enjoying a half-century in power followed by a fawning funeral.

Of course, these leadership tactics only work in the public sector and in private monopolies. Any firm in a free market run this way would soon declare bankruptcy.

  • Robert Maranto, PhD, is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.