I recently finished up a Thomas Edison State College course on Leaders in History. So I though I’d share some of what I learned in the course. Several upcoming posts will be on this topic 🙂
Legitimate authority is the concept of a leader having or attaining a “right” to be in charge. This is addressed in the book Traditional Classics on Leadership, by Wren, Hicks, and Price, which gathers writings from famous and infamous people throughout history on the many facets of and issues relating to leadership.
One leader who exemplified the ideas of legitimate authority was Harriet Tubman. Sure, she could be tough on the people she led; she ran a tight ship because any mistakes could put many people in jeopardy. But the slaves who joined to Harriet’s ranks chose to be there because of the advantages she had as a knowledgable, connected member of the Underground Railroad. Hobbes and Locke (Wren, Hicks & Price) speak of people joining to a leader in order to have an easier, safer time. Though something may be doable on one’s own, it is often desirable to join to a leader.
Although not a traditionally elected leader, Tubman nevertheless fulfilled the requirements Calvin stated, of being a terror to the evil and delivering the poor, oppressed and needy (Wren, Hicks & Price, p. 141). Thus, she had a right to be leading as her goals were ones to which all legitimate leaders should aspire.
However, there were also leaders who were quite popular in their time, but who we know from history as oppressive and tyrannical. How did they gather the followers that they did?
Jim Jones was “charismatic and disturbed,” as about.com says. He started out with noble aims like desegregation and civil rights, but he let his personality and wants overcome those and started to selfishly force people into the way he wanted. By then he had become too powerful for his followers to refuse. The following from PBS.org says it well:
“Jim Jones attracted a large following to his Peoples Temple through sermons on tolerance, social responsibility and community. As the church grew, however, the sermons on equality and tolerance were belied by his own increasing demands for personal loyalty and obedience. The extent of his authority meant that his eventual breakdown transformed a personal tragedy into one of the largest mass deaths in American history.”
People joined Hitler because he was inspiring, making them feel patriotic and proud of their country. But when he started committing atrocities they refused to see or accept that and turned a blind eye, or continued to perform what they considered their duty, as seen in the Nuremberg trials. It seems that when people started to want to leave, the tyrannical leaders had grown so strong that it was very difficult to do so.
Stories like these demonstrate the importance of followers needing to be careful of who and what they join. People like to join to good causes or to ones that make them feel good. But crafty leaders can lie to gain a following. However, eventually their true colors will show and they will be revealed as tyrants and destroyers.
Traditional Classics on Leadership by Wren, Hicks & Price (2004).