Value Systems : Thuggery

Dr. Lionel Boxer CD KSJ has consulted since 1981 to business and industry with a variety of consulting organisations and as an independent.  His work has taken him from Toronto Canada to Australasia, South East Asia and Europe.  In 1993, he was listed in The International Who’s Who of Quality and made a Fellow of the Quality Society of Australasia.  Lionel is an adjunct research fellow, research supervisor and lecturer with the Centre for Management Quality Research at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT).  He completed an industrial engineering degree at Ryerson University in Toronto, and later MBA and PhD degrees at RMIT.  He also serves as a captain in the Australian Army Reserve, where he leads logisticians, drivers, caterers, medics, maintainers, and musicians as well as playing bagpipes in the Pipes and Drums.

Over the past several months, we have been considering the differences between leadership and thuggery. From our discussion, it appears that many people have been victims of thuggery in the disguise of leadership. Certainly, it is wrong for thugs to take out their aggressive tendencies on subordinates and some effort should be focused on preventing this sort of behavior.      

A thug is ..  

Before it is possible to explain why some people are thugs rather than leaders, it would be helpful to understand what thuggery is. A thug is a combatant, assailer, aggressor, warrior or a person who imposes their violent reactions on other people. Thuggery is the behavior that such a violent person displays.  
At various times during our lives, we all display some sort of behavior that could be perceived as thug like. The story Billy Bud concerned a simple young man on a sailing ship, who was victim of a lying thug superior, who fabricated a story that wrongly implicated Billy Bud in a crime. Bud physically struck the thug and was convicted of striking a superior, a crime that resulted in the most severe of punishments from the ship’s captain. Bud was portrayed as a very simple man with a stammer, who was unable to express his ideas clearly.

When confronted by a lie, his only reaction was to hit the person misrepresenting him. On the surface, that helpless behavior --occurring when all other avenues of righting a wrong are blocked -- may seem like thuggery, but it is really desperation brought on by being overwhelmed by a thug.

Thuggery can occur in many situations, but it seems there is a tendency for mediocre people – who, when they are assigned subordinates of truly superior ability – to become frightened and revert to oppression and other tools of thuggery.

Whilst interned in the notorious Changi POW camp during W.W.II, Weary Dunlop displayed great attributes of leadership. He stood up to the thugs, who oppressed the prisoners and was the victim of many cruel assaults. It has been reported that the prison guards were frightened of him, because they knew he had a great spirit and that he was a greater leader than any of them. Indicative of his leadership, as soon as W.W.II ended, he devoted a large part of his life to improving relations with Asian nations. His message – to forget our differences and learn to live with each other!

Australians recognize his vision for Australia – Asia relations through the Dunlop Asia Awards Program.

Thuggery would not occur, if controls were in place to ensure that only people of merit and ability occupied positions of responsibility. However, we have explained before, that the systems that have -- in the past -- ensured continuity of excellence in leadership have been largely dismantled and there are no controls in the contemporary world. Without systems of continuity in place, the route to power and authority is free to all sorts of mediocre people who despise excellence.

Furthermore, once mediocre people begin to achieve positions of authority, they are able to influence their subordinates. So, success becomes a function of mediocrity, and attainment of irrelevant attributes, rather than a function of merit.

Eventually, people are unaware of the characteristics of great leaders. "Leadership" then distorts into a function of attaining some degree of capability in a series of disjointed, shallow competencies. (In 1992, I witnessed the result of this first hand in a national organisation. Hefty retrenchment packages were offered to some truly mediocre people, who happened to have mastered a few simple skills, such as time management; but they were unable to lead.)

Then people learn to succeed through thuggery and this evil overrides all goodness; "genuine goodness is threatening to those at the opposite end of the moral spectrum." Here, Earl Spencer, on 7 September 1997, commented how a contemporary icon of goodness was destroyed by a society functioning on thuggery. He went on to say that, "... she was the very essence of compassion, of duty, of style ..."

Anne Summers reflected on the leadership lessons we can learn from the Princes’ life in the September 13th 1997 issue of the Melbourne Age (pA31).

"What was striking about Princess Diana was her willingness to embrace those so often shunned by our political leaders. She did not hesitate to shake (ungloved) hands with AIDS patients, to embrace a leper, or to clasp a dying child with snot running down its face to her designer-sheathed bosom."

In 1991, Dr. John Connell AM explained the same lesson in simpler words; "leadership is about making yourself available to the man on the street."

During an Internet forum at RMIT,we discussed whether or not public figure can effectively lead the public. Certainly, public figures have a great influence on those who pay attention. That influence is enhanced by being available to people. Is seems that availability is beyond a competency. It is an attitude and it is this attitude – and others – that sets leaders apart from managers. The emergence of informal leaders is due to these phenomena and it is the cause of schisms in all sorts of organizations.

This was likely the power Weary Dunlop tapped in Changi. When the formal or appointed leader does not deal with those in their charge, a void is created and an alternative leader steps in to equal out the dynamics. Sometimes this person is unaware of their role or disinterested in taking charge, but because they care about people they have no choice.

Truly great leaders have never sought – as a primary driver – to develop excellence in particular competencies. Much of competency development is the collection of certificates; symbols of short-term gratification. Helen Keller said, "Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."

Instead, they pursued the ability to influence those who could help them to achieve their goals, or the goals that they devote themselves to in the course of their employment. In any organisation, there is a need for people with vision and the power to influence others.

These people set the organisation in motion. Once the organisation is moving in the correct direction, then those with management competencies are needed to implement plans.

Those who possess merely management skills can accomplish implementation; leadership is not essential to implementation, but leadership is critical to inspire the correct action in the first place. In 1991, John Connell explained, "a leader can hire a manager, but a manager who hires a leader soon will lose control."

To imply that management competencies are the route to leadership is like confusing the competency of a typist with a writer. The typist merely type-sets the works that a writer composes.

Thuggery becomes visible when mediocre people are confronted by someone – who has developed the transferable ability to integrate, choreograph or compose a masterpiece from scattered resources – stepping in and effortlessly solving a long standing problem.

Where a leader would acknowledge and celebrate success, someone that achieved their position through other means would retaliate with thuggery. Perhaps the next thing to consider is how a leaders deals with a boss who practices thuggery.

Greatness results from the nurturing and celebration of those who practice leadership. Those organizations that achieve and sustain great results owe their success to a system of continuity. Continuity of leadership.

You can reach Lionel via or e-mail

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