Lessons on Leadership: Why dictatorial tendencies are harmful and should be taken seriously

Societies from time to time must confront issues which are uncomfortable, and which require clear course of action. The recent developments concerning the Pathway International Church and it’s now deceased leader Kevin Smith, have brought into sharp focus, an important conversation we must have concerning the qualities we expect to see in those who lead. The avalanche of public comments about Kevin Smith and his unorthodox ways of leading (including the control he had over his seemingly uncritical thinking members), is consistent with ways in which some public commentators in Jamaica tend to find strength to deal with those who are politically weak or dead!

I wish to suggest that there are many Kevin Smith type personalities operating in our political and religious spheres and therefore whose style of leadership should come under scrutiny. In addition to the seeming propensity for finding strength to deal with those who are unable to respond, is the problem of absence of leadership standards. In other words, there is insufficient clarity and high public expectation about how leaders should conduct themselves.

Whither Dictatorship

One of the observations that has been made concerning the operations of Pathway International Church and its late leader, is that it was a dictatorship. As I pondered this characterization of the Pathway International Church being a dictatorship, which characterization appeared to me to be a fair assessment, I decided to look again at the characteristics of a dictatorship. I have written on this matter previously, but I decided to nonetheless refresh my awareness concerning this matter. In undertaking this exercise, I visited several websites and found that a common theme in the characterization of dictatorships is the presence or the existence of a cult of personality.

In essence, one of the fuels on which dictatorships run is that of a leader who sees himself or herself as possessing God-like or supernatural, or special powers, as well as being inherently special and therefore deserving of admiration, adoration, and obedience. Simply put, dictators expect or demand devotion, loyalty, submission, and deference. Those who would have seen various videos of events at this church, or who read the reports of the statements made by a member who was interviewed by the police and the director of public prosecution, would undoubtedly conclude that Smith behaved in the ways described above.

The public abhorrence concerning Smith’s behavior was based on the assessment that leaders ought not to behave in those ways. Even persons who were members of that organization, have made public their disapproval and discomfort with what was taking place, and a few are reported to have withdrawn from the organization, for similar reasons; but in neither case was there a display of courage to question and challenge the dictatorial tendencies of Smith, who is said to have had the practice of declaring curses and damnation on those who refused to submit and obey.

In the wake of what has occurred at this church, many Jamaicans as well as persons in other religious communities outside Jamaica, have expressed surprise, at what has become the Kevin Smith cult story. Some ask how all this could have been taking place “under our noses” and we did not notice it. There are others who say that they did see some tendency towards this kind of cult of personality behavior, but they did not make much of it. One important lesson, therefore, that this FATAL Kevin Smith saga has taught is that it’s a dangerous business to ignore dictatorial tendencies which, as I said above, are manifested in a cult of personality.

Trump Dictatorship?

Former president of the United States Donald Trump was widely believed to be a dictator. He openly admired other dictators, expressed the desire to have long periods in office like what those dictators and would publicly berate citizens who refused to submit to his will, whether they were employed to the government or not. While Donald Trump continues to enjoy widespread popularity in the United States, there is a broader global opinion which suggests that his style of leadership is to be abhorred and avoided.

There are hundreds of publications analyzing the Trump presidency as well as his personality, including an analysis of 4,000 psychiatrists in America whose assessment shows that trump possessed several qualities of brutal dictators, chief of which is his desire to control and direct the thinking of others and to be admired and adulated by others.

Some persons in commenting on what became the cult of personality of the Trump presidency as well as of the Republican Party,  highlight the tendences towards dictatorship which they saw in the years leading up to the 2016 elections and have concluded that the country failed to take account of the telltale signs. In the wake of the pervasiveness of the big lie about the elections of 2020 being stolen, and the perverse divisiveness which now characterizes American society, America and the world are awaken to the awareness that a leader who displays behaviors which suggest a belief in his or her superior powers and that he or she should be adored and obeyed, represents a clear and present danger to society.

Lessons for others

In the same way we openly speak of the dictatorial tendencies which we have come to recognize in the late, former leader of the Pathway International Church, as well as in Donald Trump, the former president of the United States, we must be willing to talk about said dictatorial tendencies manifested elsewhere.

in Jamaica, we have a Prime Minister who refers to himself as “The Honorable Brogad”. The term ‘Brogad’ has its origins in Jamaica’s dancehall culture and refers to a personality who is elevated among members of a community and who is expected to receive adoration, admiration, and loyalty. What is instructive about the use of this designation “Brogad” is that the Prime Minister assumed it and embraced it to show, not just his affiliation with the dancehall community but his self-ascription of unusual or extraordinary characteristics.

I assert that people who are concerned with the dangers of dictatorial tendencies cannot treat this self-ascription “Brogad” as inconsequential.

Another tendency of dictators mentioned above is that of condemning and berating those who refuse to submit or worship or obey. Donald Trump would speak highly of anyone who did his bidding but as soon as they questioned him or fail to publicly support him, he would curse them and condemn them. Similarly, Kevin Smith often declared evil and prophesy destruction upon those who refused to obey his instructions. In this regard, Trump and Smith are similar.

If these behaviors are cause for concern, Jamaicans must be deeply concerned about the Prime Minister’s practice of referring to people who criticize him as being bad minded, and to those who do not readily wish to take the COVID-19 vaccine, as fools. Are these behaviors not equally reflecting dictatorial tendencies?

Respect for the rule of law

Perhaps the most profound sign of dictatorial tendencies in a leader is his or her display of disregard for the rule of law. Essentially, dictators believe that society should be run in ways that are convenient to them. As such, laws which were designed to constrain the behavior of elected officials are seen as obstacles. The tendency of treating the law as an obstacle was a hallmark of the Trump presidency. In full blown dictatorships civil law is often replaced by martial law.  Even in instances in which there is no outright replacement of civil law by martial law, amendments are made to existing laws which give the Head of Government (who is sometimes simultaneously  the Head of State) greater and greater powers. So, in essence what we have in dictatorships, are, on the one hand, disregard for laws and aspects of the country’s constitution which are inconvenient to the wishes of the dictator, and on the other, the replacement or the creation of laws which give the Prime Minister or President unfettered powers.

Jamaica and the threat of a dictatorship

It is to be recalled that earlier in 2021 when the Government of Jamaica amended the Disaster Risk Management Act, (DRMA), special powers were given to the Prime Minister to determine criminal sanctions. This in effect replaced the role of the resident magistrate with the power of the Prime Minister. I suggest that this development represents a move towards a dictatorship.

Thus, the analysis of Jamaica’s threat of a dictatorship must be located in the practices of government and more specifically the conduct of the Prime Minister, both as a citizen and a public official.

In addition to the far-reaching amendment to legislation which gave the Prime Minister extraordinary powers, we have the history of the Prime Minister’s violation of the constitution on at least four occasions:

  1. The issuing off pre-signed letters of resignation; an act which the court found to have been unconstitutional
  2. Despite the finding of the court that this conduct was unconstitutional the Prime Minister challenged the ruling of the court in the higher court and that higher court affirmed the decision of the lower court. In those circumstances the head of a political party whether in office or not having been twice scolded and rebuffed by the court, ought to have resigned.
  3. The appointment of the Chief Justice on probation
  4. The passing into law of a legislation, popularly known as NIDS, which the court found to have been unconstitutional.

The frequency of these occurrences must be seen as representing a mindset, a worldview. But if anyone were in doubt about violation of the constitution being part of the Prime Minister’s DNA, one should by now be rid of that doubt given the Prime Minister’s assertion at a press conference held on November 14, 2021. The Prime Minister had called the presser to announce the declaration of states of emergency in seven police divisions. In that press conference, the Prime Minister stated that the country should not be preoccupied with what he called “academic” discussions about “constitutionality”. The Prime Minister made this comment in response to concerns raised about the constitutionality of using states of emergency as regular crime fighting tools. This assertion was made against the background of the fact that the Supreme Court found that the government had violated the constitutional rights of some men who were taken into custody and who had challenged the constitutionality off their detention under the state of emergency.

The Prime Minister’s assertion that concerns about constitutionality are academic, is both frightening and threatening. Jamaica should not take these developments lightly but our attitude to this pattern of behavior is going to be shaped by our view of leadership, by the standards we set for leaders, and by the leadership qualities we determine are appropriate for our country.

Canute Thompson

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