Hanging on to absolute power is no easy feat. Just ask Egypt's Hosni Mubarak or Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Mark Van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja, authors of Selected, a new book on leadership, offer (with tongue firmly in cheek) these helpful tips for a prolonged iron rule .
1 Expand one's power base through nepotism and corruption. This is not just a tactic adopted in Third World countries; the British scandal over MPs' expenses, in which politicians made claims ranging from the embarrassingly trivial (a bathplug for under a pound) to the ridiculous (a duck island for a castle moat), demonstrates that the powerful will always find ways to abuse privilege.
Be warned, though: you will eventually be rumbled, so corruption tends to work only in the short term.
2 Curry favour by providing public goods efficiently and generously. Benevolent dictatorship was practised by Lee Kuan Yew, prime minister of Singapore for 31 years. Lee believed that ordinary people could not be entrusted with power because it would corrupt them, and that economics was the major stabilizing force in society. To this end, he effectively eliminated all opposition by using his constitutional powers to detain suspects without trial for two years without the right of appeal. To implement his economic policies, Lee allowed only one political party, one newspaper, one trade union movement and one language. He encouraged people to uphold the family system, discipline their children, be more courteous and avoid pornography. As well as setting up a government dating service for single graduates, he urged people to take better aim in public toilets and handed out hefty fines for littering. Singaporeans tolerated these restrictions on their freedom because they valued their economic security more.
On this point, Lee did not disappoint, turning Singapore into one of the world's wealthiest countries (per capita). If a despot can spin wealth and stability people are more inclined to forget their liberty. In fact, one of our experiments shows that a Lee-style form of leadership, in which one person is vested with the power to punish free-riders and cheats, is very effective at maintaining co-operation in groups.
3 Instigate a monopoly on the use of force to curb public violence and maintain peace. Dictators cannot survive for long without disarming the people and buttering up the military. Former dictators such as Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo and Idi Amin of Uganda were high-ranked army officers who co-opted the military in order to overthrow democracies in favour of dictatorships.
Yet democracies are not always more popular than dictatorships.
In reality, people prefer dictatorships if the alternative is chaos. This explains the nostalgia for rulers like Stalin and Mao, who were mass murderers but who provided social order. One retired middle-ranking official in Beijing told the Asia Times last year: "I earned less than 100 yuan a month in Mao's time. I could barely save each month but I never worried about anything. My work unit would take care of everything for me: housing, medical care, and my children's education, though there were no luxuries. … Now I receive 3,000 yuan as a [monthly]pension, but I have to count every penny - everything is so expensive and no one will take care of me now if I fall ill."
When given the choice in the laboratory, participants will desert an unstructured group (analogous to an anything-goes society) and seek the order of a "punishing regime," which has the authority to identify and reprimand cheats. This lawlessness can be seen in hunter-gatherer tribes (egalitarianism is no guarantee of peacefulness). When anthropologists visited a New Guinea tribe they found that a third of males suffered a violent death.
When women were asked to describe their domestic life a typical answer ran like this: "My first husband was killed by Elopi raiders. My second husband was killed by a man who wanted me and who became my third husband. That brother was killed by the brother of my second husband, seeking to avenge his murder."
Any aspiring dictator who restores order, even through coercion, is likely to earn the gratitude of his subjects.
4 Exterminate your political enemies - or, more cleverly, embrace them in the hope that the bear hug will neutralize them. This is exactly what David Cameron has done, by teaming up with Nick Clegg in a British coalition government. Mobutu abandoned the unpopular practice of murdering political rivals and instead bribed them, with political office, for their support. Idi Amin, who came to power in Uganda after a military coup, stuck with the murderous route: During his eight years at the top, he is estimated to have killed between 80,000 and 300,000 people. His victims included cabinet ministers, judicial figures, bankers, intellectuals, journalists and a former prime minister. At the lower end of the scale, that's a hit rate of 27 executions a day.
5 Defeat a common enemy. By facing down Nazi Germany, Churchill, de Gaulle, Roosevelt and Stalin sealed their reputations as great leaders. Legendary warlords such as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Napoleon were military geniuses who expanded their countries' territories through invading their neighbours. Dictatorships feed on wars and other external threats because these justify their existence - swift military action requires a central command-and-
More than half of 20th-century rulers engaged in battles at some point during their reign, either as aggressors or defenders. Among dictators the proportion rises to 88 per cent. Democratic rulers find this tactic more difficult to adopt because most wars are unpopular with voters.
To attract support, the ruler must be perceived as a defender, not a warmonger. The former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher received a lucky boost to her popularity after Argentina, a military dwarf, invaded the British-owned Falkland Islands; she triumphed over her Argentine enemies. Another former British PM, Tony Blair, was not so lucky. Although the 9/11 attacks did much to strengthen his government, his decision to attack Iraq (ostensibly to defend Britain from a long-range missile attack) sullied his legacy.
There is some experimental evidence that when democratic leaders feel threatened, they are more likely to wage war than in secure times. Replicating an earlier study, we had two groups of participants play a game where they could either co-operate or compete with each other. Each group had a leader. The leader of one group was told his appointment would last the duration of the experiment. The other leader was informed that his performance would be evaluated halfway through, after which his group members could decide whether to replace him.
The leaders in the latter group, who thought their position might come under threat, were more likely to attack the other group. The lesson here is that leaders can consolidate and extend their power over followers by creating a common enemy and, ideally, defeating it; or by playing the tough defender.
6 Accumulate power by manipulating the hearts and minds of followers. One of the first actions of any aspiring dictator should be to control the free flow of information, because it plugs a potential channel of criticism. Mobutu and Amin eliminated the free press in their countries and turned the media into propaganda machines for their regimes.
Other leaders, such as Myanmar's ruling junta, shut down media outlets completely (the charity Committee to Protect Journalists identifies Myanmar as the worst country to blog from). Democratically elected leaders are somewhat more restrained, but if they have enough powers they can rig an election (like Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe), do away with meddlesome journalists (like Vladimir Putin's Russia) or, if money is no object, build their own media empire.
The Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi owns nearly half the Italian media, encompassing national television channels, radio stations, newspapers and magazines. Unsurprisingly, these outlets carefully manage Berlusconi's public image and shield him from criticism. Aspiring dictators should note, however, that muzzling the media is most effective in an ordered society: a 2007 poll of more than 11,000 people in 14 countries, on behalf of the BBC, found that 40 per cent of respondents across countries from India to Finland thought social harmony more important than press freedom.
7 Create an ideology to justify an exalted position.
Throughout history, leaders have used or, in some cases, invented a religion to legitimize their power. In the original chiefdoms like Hawaii the chiefs were both political leaders and priests, who claimed to be communicating with the gods in order to bring about a generous harvest. Conveniently, this ideology often passed as an explanation of why the chief should occupy the role for life, and why the post should pass to the chief's descendants. Accordingly, these chiefdoms spent much time and effort building temples and other religious institutions, to give a formal structure to the chief's power.
In later kingdoms, followers became wise to the ruse, and politics and religion were officially separated, although the king still headed both. When priests became pesky, however, some monarchs simply started another religion. Henry VIII of England pulled this trick when the Pope refused to annul his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He created the Church of England, appointed himself Supreme Head and granted his own annulment.
Other ideologies include personality cults such as Mobutism or Maoism; some serve to unite a nation divided by ethnicity, religion or language. For example, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern, independent, secular Turkey, attempted to soothe the ethnic and religious tensions threatening the country by propagating a belief system his countrymen could buy into.
According to sun-language theory, the first utterances of mankind were based on sun worship and this proto-language most resembled Turkish (because Sumerians, one of the first civilizations to devise writing, came from central Asia). Ataturk, in an act of expedient presumption, thus claimed that Turkish was the original language of mankind.
Excerpted from Selected: Why Some People Lead, Why Others Follow, and Why It Matters © by Mark van Vugt and Anjana Ahuja. Published with permission from Random House Canada.