The Cult of Personality – Adolf Hitler’s Transformational Leadership
History fascinates many of us and its cast of colorful characters that have adorned the canvas of time never ceases to provide material to capture our attention. In the study of transformational leadership one cannot help to think of charismatic people that have for one reason or another made a lasting impression on humanity…for good or evil. Adolf Hitler personified transformational leadership.
If I had to pick one word that could define a transformational leader it would be charisma. Charisma is the “special personality characteristic that gives a person superhuman or exceptional powers” that has the ability to captivate (PSU WC, L10, P4). Adolf Hitler’s ability to mesmerize people and gain their support has proved exceptionally powerful. Even today one can easily turn on the television and find a documentary about him. It would be an interesting study to see how much media has been generated because of what he accomplished as a leader. Think about many books, TV programs, and movies would not have been made if World War II had never happened…I digress. The point is that he was able to cultivate his transformational leadership abilities to move Germany to perpetrate one of the most horrific periods in modern history and thrust the world into war. How did he do it?
Pseudo by technicality.
According to Burns (1978) Hitler is not a bona fide transformational leader, but Bass (1998) coined the word pseudo transformational leader because he used his influence for causes universally understood to be evil (as cited in Northouse, 2013). This may be a way to parse words and segregate the baddies from the goodies, but there is no denying that Adolf Hitler was a transformational leader in most parts of its definition with, of course, the minor sticking point of him being an evil dictator. Let’s explore what factors fit.
In Need of a Crisis
“A crisis may set the stage for transformational leaders to be effective” (PSU WC, L10, P4). In Hitler’s case the crisis was the Great Depression. Hitler had been slowly building the Nazi party throughout the mid to late 1920s and by the time the depression hit in 1929 the environment in Germany was ripe for sweeping political change. He seized the opportunity to influence the masses that were looking for an answer to the grand social problems facing them; millions were out of work, thousands of businesses were shuttered, and Germany’s largest bank failed (Shirer, 1990).
Idealized Influence is the same as charisma. Of the four transformational leadership factors this is the first and Hitler was bursting with charisma (Northouse, 2013). According to historian Laurence Rees, “Hitler told millions of Germans that they were Aryans and therefore “special” and racially “better” people than everyone else, something that helped cement the charismatic connection between leader and led” (2012).
Part of the motivation of those surrounding Hitler was due to his memoir Mien Kampf, which in English means “my struggle.” It was these two volumes that his cronies would come to understand his views on race, politics, and what he deemed the historical right of the German people. This fanaticism became almost doctrinal for justifying atrocities to political opponents and “inferior” peoples. During the rise to power of the Nazi party members went to extremes to ensure the eventual success of its power grab using murder, coercion, and propaganda. Motivated in an unseemly way, but motivated nonetheless.
One may not think of the intellectual stimulation as a result of the Nazi party rule, but under the surface there are many things that exist today because of great advances in many areas. These creative innovations from intellectual stimulation were a direct result of the policies put in place by Hitler (Northouse, 2013). Some examples of innovations created in the Third Reich are, rocketry, aviation, highway design, and the Volkswagen.
Adolf Hitler ended his life with a self-inflicted gunshot and then put in a ditch, due in part for the lack of individualized consideration for his subordinates. His lack of trust for those around him ensured that the Reich would fail in a time that it needed to be strong. The individualized consideration factor requires that the leader listen and foster an environment to allow those under them to develop (Northouse, 2013). Hitler’s on the other hand told his generals that he would “annihilate anyone who stood in his way” and “suppress any opposition with brutal force” (Shirer, 1990). This threat would lead to a lack of leadership at lower echelons, preventing any autonomy with which to counter-attack allied forces without explicit instruction from Hitler; this proved to be a fatal mistake.
Bass, B. M. (1998). The ethics of transformational leadership. In J. Ciulla (ed.), Ethics: The heart of leadership (pp.169-192). Westport, CT: Praeger.
Burns, J. M. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper & Row.
(2013). Hitler speaks. (2013). [Web Graphic]. Retrieved from http://www.history.co.uk/explore-history/ww2/nazi-germany/photo-gallery.html
Lees, L. (2012, November 11). [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20237437
Northouse, P. (2013). Leadership: Theory and practice. (6 ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publishing.
Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2013). PSYCH 485: Leadership in Work Settings. Lesson 10: Transformational Leadership. Retrieved from: https://courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/sp13/psych485/002/content/10_lesson/04_page.html
Shirer, W. (1990). The rise and fall of the third reich. New York: MJF Books.