The Power and the Weakness of One

  • One of the headlines in the news this week was the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.  Although he died at a relatively young age, Chavez has seemed to be in the news headlines forever, sometimes for his outrageous statements, sometimes for his larger-than-life persona, sometimes for his disparagement of United States policies abroad, and often for his utter disdain for Western-style capitalism.  He demonized Western leaders, befriended outcast, “rogue” governments around the world and consolidated his power in Venezuelan politics until he controlled it almost single-handedly.  Indeed, there were few agencies of Venezuelan government which did not feel the pressure of the Chavez grip.  He garnered the support and even love of many Venezuelans due to his posture for the poor.  And then, there was all that oil lying beneath Venezuelan lands, which provided him with the platform from which to be heard by all parties, foreign and domestic.

The word “charismatic” has often been used to describe Chavez and his swashbuckling style.  He rarely fell victim to diplomacy when a straightforward bellowing could get his position across, a characteristic which befuddled unfriendly governments but which endeared him to the people of Venezuela; he was elected to the presidency four times.  During those years, he increasingly identified himself as not only the president, but as the very country itself, blurring the line between the nation and the nationalist.  If nothing else, the government of Venezuela during the Chavez years was “a one-man band.”  He wielded his voice and his power unilaterally.

In Nicaragua, Chavez became a foreign patron, providing the Nicaraguan government with access to cheap oil and lots of it.  The economic pacts made between Chavez and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega were largely secret affairs, but ones touted by the Nicaraguan leader as being enormously helpful to the Nicaraguan economy and its people.  But they were accomplished, as much of the Chavez legacy was, man-to-man, on a one-to-one basis.  And within that posture of apparently straightforward, uncomplicated, effective relationship building lies the problem: it was but one man.  Nicaraguans might now rightly be asking, “Now what?”

Chavez is now gone.  And for all anyone knows, his intentions, promises, relationships, knowledge, and strategies might now be gone, as well.  Because the man became the country.  He was the whole show.  The broad participation and transparency of government that might have solidified an entire generational movement in Venezuela were never given the opportunities to take root, and thus the strength of the man and his country became its weakness, as well.  Time will tell whether his successor will  perpetuate the policies and directions fostered by Chavez, but one thing is clear: even if the strategies do continue, they will do so at a slower pace and with diminished impact due to the Chavez leadership style.

It’s both the blessing and the curse of singular leadership.  When one leader makes all the decisions and possesses all of the authority, he /she becomes the identity of whatever institution is being served, whether governmental, business or non-profit.  If that identity is a positive one, the organization can become well-served by the strength of that individual’s charisma, talent, integrity and caring heart.  But if that individual is all that the institution represents, then it will be as fleeting as snowfall in Spring.  Any organization needs strong and even charismatic leadership to be planted and spread throughout its ranks so that its roots are deep and its life is lasting.  It’s the way that continuity is assured and the way through which followers really understand what they are cheering about when the leader leads.  And no one of us can ever be as smart as all of us.

Working in Nicaragua, I wonder what changes will come about with the passing of Chavez and his secret agreements.  Will Daniel Ortega suddenly find himself in a partnership without a partner?  It’s an important question that every one of our partners needs to ask when they seek to build stronger, more lasting organizations.  A coop member’s health and strength may come from organizational solidarity, but organizational solidarity is built upon the ownership engagement of all its members….




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