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17 January 2019
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Right and wrong: democracy or dictatorship?

16 March 2015  

When you are young you begin to learn from the people and the world around you, blogs John Bowen.

At first you are naturally trusting about what you are told, and then with a bit of curiosity you start to verify things. “Don’t touch that; it’s hot.” OK, you think, then you put your hand out and: “Ouch, that hurt.”

As your circles widen with school you begin to learn more and start to see that not everything you have learned so far is necessarily true. Take right and wrong. Because what you might have been taught about the difference is not always what other children have been taught. Next you go to work and there you meet all sorts of challenges to the way that you think and the things that you have been taught to believe in.

I suppose that there should be no surprise that I am, at heart, a supporter of democracy. I was born not long after a bloody global conflict in which several of my relatives and many others of their generation fought to defeat an axis of dictatorships.

Through my formative years the principle that dictatorships were wrong was a constant theme. The Soviet Union may have been an ally in one war, but we were deep into the so-called Cold War against that former ally along with joining in various skirmishes around the globe, all in the name of freedom, mostly in the name of overthrowing despotic dictators.

Once I got to go to work, though, I began to experience dictatorships at first hand because that is how things are there – the boss is the boss and although they are chosen, they are not elected. At work I learned that being a dictator is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is being under the control of one because there are different types of dictatorship and in a realm of a benevolent dictator life could actually be pretty good. That style of leader may not be running a democracy, but they can bring elements of democratic principles with them as they seek opinions of their people and allow them freedom of action.

I also got to see the bad side of democracy in various organisations that I took an interest in because I have been, on several occasions, an elected representative in sporting bodies, professional bodies and trade unions to name but three. In all of those I have seen some real travesties in terms of elections and through the latter I have also had involvement in local and national political elections. Democracy is still something that I believe in passionately, but I have learned along the way that it has many flaws.

Eventually I moved up the ladder in my career and into senior positions in which I became a dictator myself and in accepting power I began to understand the responsibility that comes with it. The saying that power corrupts is true in the sense that I can do so if those with the power allow themselves to be corrupted. Just as a political dictator can be carried away with their position so too can a dictator in the workplace and while there will be policies and checks and balances in place within which they must work, you will find good and bad examples of leadership; you will know of both sorts yourself.

I started off this train of thought by remembering that this time last year I was working in Libya, a country that was then trying to emerge from the trauma of overthrowing a dictator two years earlier and a country that is now even less stable than it was during my visit. I was made very welcome there and am sad for the people that I met that their hopes for something better are not – yet – being realised.

What is right and what is wrong? Is a democracy better than a dictatorship? The more I learn, the harder these sort of questions become to answer, and perhaps the truth is that there is only uncertainty. That is where leadership comes through for us because when we have a good leader they take away the uncertainty from us and point us in a direction that we can believe is right. The uncertainty they keep to themselves.

John Bowen is an FM consultant