A few years before Peter Drucker died in 2005, I asked him why all his writings were about management, not leadership. By then leadership had become the hot topic it still is, sounding higher and nobler than mere management, which seemed hopelessly 1950s. Drucker was (and remains) the greatest management writer ever; anything he said on leadership would have been wildly popular. But he wouldn’t go there. I’ll never forget his explanation. “The three greatest leaders of the 20th century were Hitler, Stalin, and Mao,” he said. “If that’s leadership, I want nothing to do with it.”
It’s time to talk about a difficult topic that can no longer be avoided: the leadership of evil. French authorities have identified the mastermind of the Paris attacks as Abdelhamid Abaaoud, 27, a Belgian who has fought for ISIS in Syria and was wanted in Belgium for his role in a terrorist attack that was thwarted in January. He had been targeted by Western airstrikes in Syria. So far we don’t know much more about him – whether he recruited and trained the others who carried out the Paris attacks, or to what extent, if any, ISIS funded and directed him. But if the French authorities have named the right man, we can say with confidence that he was a very effective leader.
The planning, supply, and logistics of the operation probably involved more than the eight men believed to have carried out the attacks, and it all had to be done without attracting the attention of law enforcement. If Abaaoud also recruited and trained the participants, including those who blew themselves up, then his leadership abilities may extend far beyond those required for directing the operation.
A French counterterrorism judge told CNN that Abaaoud would certainly have been in touch with ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi about these attacks. If so, that would have made it unusual in ISIS-related terrorism. The prevalent pattern – which reinforces the view that al-Baghdadi is also a highly effective leader – is that such attacks are carried out by independent operators who have been inspired but not directed by ISIS. That’s the conclusion of recently published research by the Terrorism Research Initiative. Of 30 attacks with some connection to ISIS, only six included attackers who were trained by the group; most were carried out by sympathizers on their own. It’s painful but necessary to observe that this is real leadership, of a sort: inspiring others to execute the ISIS mission at no cost to the organization, multiplying its power. The researchers note soberly that such attacks “represent a formidable challenge to Western security agencies.”
Are people like Abaaoud and al-Baghdadi real leaders? I’m afraid I agree with Drucker; evil leaders are leaders nonetheless. But I part with the master on disdaining the whole concept. While we’d like to believe that leaders who represent death and nihilism can never succeed for long, the reality is that they can, as Drucker’s evil troika illustrate. The Paris attacks remind us of leadership’s power, and they remind leaders who represent life and freedom that their message is not enough. They also need to be better leaders than those of the forces of darkness.
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