Leadership Musings (1)

Joan Marques - Ed.D., MBA.
Burbank, California

In a series of evaluative sessions, a team of leadership students and myself reviewed various documentaries about the lives of some of the world's great leaders. The assessment was based solely on these individuals' leadership skills, and not on who or what they represented. The intention was not to praise or condemn these people, but rather to review their leadership styles, their characteristics, and the determinants that occurred during their uprise toward the great ones they became.

Our concentration areas were:

    1. What correlation could be found between the leader, the followers, and the situation?
    2. What were this leader's perceived positive qualities?
    3. What were this leader's perceived negative qualities?
    4. What outstanding traits could be detected within this leader?

One of the leaders reviewed was Fidel Castro. Born and raised in an upper-middle class environment, Castro was not exactly the poor sufferer one would possibly expect. He enjoyed a decent education, and moved around in fairly upscale circles while growing up. But he soon became aware of the snobbishness among several of his fellow students, when they excluded him from their swanky society events. According to the information source, this experience was one of the main generators of Castro's aversion for control of the affluent toward the underprivileged.

Even as a child Castro demonstrated some important leadership traits such as determination and a great level of self-confidence. He had an enormous drive, developed an imposing posture, and displayed resilience whenever his missions failed: he just got up, regained his composure, improved his strategy, and tried again.

When the 1952 elections in which he had planned to campaign for a parliamentary seat were cancelled due to a coup d'etat led by Fulgencio Batista, Castro's mind was set: he would do whatever it took to become Cuba's future leader. After a failed initial attempt to overthrow the government and a consequential prison term, Castro started collecting a team of loyalists around him, participated in their stern guerilla training, and thus created an atmosphere of respect, understanding, and empathy between himself and his allies.

A closer look at the situation around the time of Castro's establishment as Cuba's leader in 1959 teaches us that Batista's regime had grown increasingly unpopular among the Cuban people, and that he had lost the support he initially experienced from the U.S. The discontent among the Cuban people created a fertile climate for Castro to seize power as a hero. His empathetic approach toward the downtrodden soon made him an icon in his country. The rest is history: Castro established close relations with the Soviet Union, nationalized the local industry, imprisoned or executed opponents, and established a climate of lasting tense with the U.S.

So, what can an analysis of Castro as a leader teach us?

    1. There was a clear and intense correlation between Castro, his followers, and the situation at the time he took on his leadership position: the contemporaneous disgruntlement of the Cuban people toward the government made it easier for Castro to step into power as a liberator.

    2. Some of Castro's positive qualities are:

      a. His ability to provide the Cuban people with a sense of self-esteem. This quality may have been more appreciated by the lower than by the upper and middle class on the island. While the latter fled the country at any possible opportunity, the first was heavily supported by free medical treatment and education.
      b. His independence, which enabled him to remain a powerful figure for almost a half century now. Although ruined in many economical regards, Cuba has miraculously been able to keep itself afloat in the world of today. The country has even grown out to be South America's medical icon.
      c. His determination, which kept him focused on his vision to become Cuba's leader.
      d. His resilience: he emerged several times from being captured or defeated in his actions. He used those setbacks to learn from and improve.
      e. His risk predilection: he dared to stand for what he believed in - and still does - in spite of the aggravation of great economical powerhouses such as the U.S.
      f. His self-confidence, which made him believe in himself and his visions, and influence others through the radiation of this very characteristic.
      g. His communicative skills, which enabled him to build a team of allies when it was time to get into action.
      h. His participatory skills: he did not stand on a pedestal yelling orders to followers, but involved himself in their hardship when it was time to fight.
      i. His empathy for the less fortunate ones, which resulted in large scaled medical campaigns and free treatment for the poor, and a lasting attempt to eradicate illiteracy.

    3. Some of Castro's negative qualities are:

      a. His over confidence: he seems to believe that he is an authority in every area, which makes him unreceptive toward suggestions.
      b. His mismanagement: he stubbornly continues to adhere to a doctrine that has proven its failure, resulting in empty store shelves and long lines as part of the daily routine.
      c. His stubbornness: he has developed himself into a "Fidelist," not favoring any particular ideology anymore, although his style was originally inspired by various others.
      d. His excessive sensitivity: he hated the wealthy and condemned them. This caused an overwhelming exodus whenever and however possible: not just by the upper class, but even among the working class, which he always considered his partisan.
      e. His authoritarian approach, which disabled any kind of mellowness or change acceptance, especially during the first 30 years of his leadership.
      f. His coerciveness: Castro's rules needed to be followed. Dissidents were punished.

    4. Some traits of this leader that stand out are:

      a. He is tall and handsome, and therefore impressive.
      b. He is charismatic and charming. His influence exceeds the boundaries of his physical presence.
      c. He has great team building skills.

Although the detected positive qualities in this leader are outnumbering the negative ones, one should consider the strength, manifestation, and impact of each quality or skill on all stakeholders.

Fidel Castro is an intriguing person to analyze. He tries to keep his private life concealed from the ever-spying eyes of eager journalists. And above all: he has managed to establish a legacy: Whether liked or disliked, loved or hated, accepted or condemned; his name is world-renowned.