Toxic Followers by Ira Chaleff
Those of us in the followership field have given considerable thought to the
subject of toxic leadership. We will also need to deal at some point with
the uncomfortable issue of toxic followership.
The Washington Post gave its top headline today, July 5, 2008, to an article
titled "Inside Mugabe's Violent Crackdown." The article gives surprisingly
detailed accounts of the deliberations that occurred inside President Robert
Mugabe's inner circle after he lost the initial vote for re-election to the
position he has held for 28 years since Zimbabwe threw off colonial rule.
The article reports that:
"Mugabe told the gathering he planned to give up power in a televised
speech to the nation the next day, according to the written notes of one
participant that were corroborated by two other people with direct knowledge
of the meeting.
"But Zimbabwe's military chief, Gen. Constantine Chiwenga, responded
that the choice was not Mugabe's alone to make. ,,, Chiwenga told Mugabe his
military would take control of the country to keep him in office or the
president could contest a runoff election, directed in the field by senior
army officers supervising a military-style campaign against the opposition.
".the plan was given a code name: CIBD. The acronym, which proved
apt in the fevered campaign that unfolded over the following weeks, stood
for Coercion, Intimidation, Beating, Displacement."
"In the three months between the March 29 vote and the June 27
runoff election, ruling party militias under the guidance of 200 senior army
officers battered the Movement for Democratic Change, bringing the
opposition party's network of activists to the verge of oblivion. By
election day, more than 80 opposition supporters were dead, hundreds were
missing, thousands were injured and hundreds of thousands were homeless.
Moran Tsvangirai, the party's leader, dropped out of the contest and took
refuge in the Dutch Embassy.
"The account reveals previously undisclosed details of the strategy
behind the campaign as it was conceived and executed by Mugabe and his top
advisors, who from that first meeting through the final vote appeared to
hold decisive influence over the president.
". The notes and interviews make clear that its (Mugabe's political
party) military supporters, who stood to lose wealth and influence if Mugabe
bowed out, were not prepared to relinquish their authority simply because
voters checked Tsvangirai's name on the ballots."
This is a rare documented look into the inner circles of power. We see a
leader who was apparently inclined to do the right thing per the tenets of
democratic transitions and was talked out of doing so by at least one of his
followers who commanded the country's military power. While Mugabe clearly
could have stood his ground, he was swayed by the toxic follower's
determined arguments. While we can argue that the leadership role in this
case passed from the President to the military commander whose aims and
methods were both toxic, from the perspective of structural government roles
and authorities, the military commander was in the formal follower role and
exerted his toxic influence upwards as well as outwards and downwards.
There is often an implicit assumption in followership studies, including my
own, that Lord Acton's famous assertion "Power tends to corrupt. Absolute
power corrupts absolutely" applies to the positional leader, and that
followers have the responsibility to mitigate the distorting effects of
power. Clearly, from the example cited here, the reflected power
senior-followers/subordinate leaders enjoy is equally capable of corrupting
the positional follower role. This would appear to invite its own track of
study and practice that focuses on how leaders identify, insulate themselves
from and disempower toxic followership. The interaction of power's tendency
to corrupt both the positional leader and those close to and
benefiting from the positional power is sure to pose great challenges to
both this field of study and to practitioners working to detoxify the
For the full article on the Mugabe campaign of violence see:
Interesting thoughts and the inclusion of information from the inner-
circle, or circle of influence, provides some light on the country's
management. It also gives pause, and this is from an untrained, and
unknowing observer, that the military is the real leader, Mugabe is a
pawn or public face. If so, I suspect Mugabe's presence may be
shortened if he dare cross the real (military) leadership, too much, too
often.--Gene Dixon Director, ECU Engineering, Ink, East Carolina University