I had always known that Stalin was a bad man – from my childhood, when I heard stories of Refusniks and their battles to escape the USSR – that, and all the Cold War propaganda that surrounded anyone growing-up in the 70s or 80s.
It was only recently that I discovered how very very bad he was. Indeed, he and Hitler could easily take centre-stage in a contest for the most despicable people to have ever lived.
The film, The Death of Stalin, directed by Armando Iannucci, describes the insane weeks following Stalin’s death in 1953.
Setting aside the history, the film focuses on the shenanigans involving the power struggles between the various senior Soviet officials to gain the upper-hand and assume the position of General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Michael Palin, Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor and others (Jason Isaacs is amazing), are some of the cast who demonstrate their cunning, ineptitude and, psychopathy in the wake of Stalin’s death.
I found the film brilliant and I recommend it to anyone.
Separately however, the film made me reflect on matters closer to home – the machinations behind big organisations, and my own favourite, the NHS.
I have recounted before my introduction to NHS leadership when a friend gave me a copy of Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett – this portrays the scheming, conniving, trickery and politics relating to the Church and cathedral building projects in 12th Century England.
I thought it an odd way for someone to explain, ‘This is how we do it,’ but, there you go – within a short few years that person had become a victim of the system themselves.
Take Yes Minister, add a dash of Michael Douglas in Falling Down, a soupçon of Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and you are almost there.
It is interesting to reflect on some of the great leaders of the 20th Century – take your pick, or perhaps, pick-on Hitler and Stalin – they managed to achieve feats of creativity and destruction that are without parallel; countries, nations, continents came under their direct command and influence – whatever properties of greatness, micromanagement or evil they possessed enabled them to ascend to positions of authority and cause the deaths and suffering of millions of people.
It is ironic, when organisations look to their leaders for direction – allow the ‘senior decision makers’ to lay-out the strategic plan for tomorrow and beyond, as if, we are somehow genetically programmed to accept without question that some folk have a greater understanding of things than others.
So, from the movie, it says to me that there are clearly good, even great leaders (I think Darius the Great of Persia, was quite a cool character), equally there are people who lead and despite great achievements can cause devastation.
I have the book ‘Snakes in Suits – when psychopaths go to work’ at my side – yes; certainly, Stalin and Hitler were psychopaths – there are likely individuals in organisations across the country occupying positions of leadership who fit the typology.
In 2015, I completed a Masters in Healthcare Leadership – a central tenet of this related to compassionate leadership. This is leading with your heart and mind, considering the objective of person-centred hospitals, organisations, departments as the only feasible way to see-in tomorrow.
Ironically, in the wake of the 2007 financial crash and the past decade of Tory NHS asphyxiation, we have found ourselves not in an environment where compassion necessarily thrives. But, where a more assertive form of leadership dominates, holds sway. They aren’t all psychopaths out there, although, potentially this helps and, just as Churchill was a great war leader, different times require different approaches.
When I look across the Atlantic at Don Berwick, I see the embodiment of compassionate leadership; although I don’t know the man, this seems to be central to everything he is and does, down to the anecdotes involving his grand-children.
And the point of all this?
Well, it is a message to go and see the movie and when you are next in a position to blindly accept the dictate or instruction from above, assuming that they know best, perhaps, just pause and ask, ‘How does this affect me? Is it right? How does it affect the most vulnerable? The weak, the defenceless, the unrepresented?’
And then, perhaps, fight and fight and fight, and, if that fails, look for a visa, parachute or other means of escape.