Leadership as Influence: Lessons from Hitler?

Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, emerges from the party's Munich headquarters on December 5, 1931. Hitler predicted his Nazi party would one day control Germany. (AP Photo)

Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialists, emerges from the party’s Munich headquarters on December 5, 1931. Hitler predicted his Nazi party would one day control Germany. (AP Photo)


Team Lead 4 Life would like to categorically express that neither the Executive Team, nor its employees, support the gratuitous atrocities and outright discrimination carried out by the Nazi Government. Neither we, nor the writer are condoning the torture and killing of Jews and countless other minorities under the Leadership of Adolf Hitler.


“…now I want to give you an example of an influential leader,” the eager grade 6 students looked at me expectantly; almost sure that I was about to talk about Nelson Mandela, but I’m not one for cliché’s.

“How many of you know who Adolf Hitler is?” Their ashen faces strewn with shock and horror, they shifted in their seats.

“But he’s not a good leader,” one of them interjected, his comment welcomed by the approving murmurs of his peers.

“You’re right,” I said dryly “but I did say influential leader, didn’t I?” eyes blank, they awaited my explanation.

If there’s anything facilitating youth camps and leadership processes has taught me, it’s that using unusual examples drives the point home. Paramount to Team Lead 4 Life’s philosophy is John C Maxwell’s notion that “Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, nothing less.” And influence, by definition, is “the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behaviour of someone or something, or the effect itself,” (Google Dictionary, 2015).

Being a Black, Zambian female, you can only imagine the horrified stares that come my way whenever I express my views on Hitler. Many people are opposed to using Hitler as an example, and rightfully so. However, my interest in the controversial German Leader is by no means an attempt to emulate or idolise him, but rather, to learn some noteworthy lessons on Leadership.

Believe your Vision

I always begin by talking about Hitler being a citizen of Austria with the [unconfirmed] possibility of having Jewish lineage. He had dark brown hair, brown eyes, and he was just a little over 1.5 metres tall. Even though he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class and the Black Wound Badge by the German Army, most of his work was well away from the gruelling World War One (WWI) frontlines.

Despite all of this, he still managed to sell the idea of a master race: the Aryan, Nordic race—characterised by having light-coloured hair, light-coloured eyes, fair skin, long and narrow skulls, and tall stature. The charismatic leader was seen as Germany’s only hope and his party membership increased from 800,000 to 14million almost instantly; his deep belief in what he was doing moved the nation.

As a leader, the strength of your conviction will normally affect how far those you lead are willing to go the distance with you.

Action Trumps Talk

Hitler is well known for his gift as an orator; he was not only able to address multitudes and keep them captivated, but also to spur on a despondent nation on a journey to becoming one of the world’s superpowers. Interestingly, it was not purely the Führer’s ability to seduce crowds with his words that made him rise to power, but rather the fact that he acted on his words.

Hitler introduced price controls, reduced unemployment, and, kept the interest rate low. He looked after the work force by coining the concept of paid vacations and introducing affordable luxuries such as the Volkswagen (‘the people’s car’). Thus, the economy improved—one of the causes of Hitler’s popularity. If he had not delivered, he would have had very little success in his time as a leader.

What we do communicates much more to the people we lead than what we say. My previous article on Authenticity highlights the importance of our word. When we follow through our words with our actions, we become more credible.

Surround Yourself with Great People—and Listen to them.

By the end of WWI, Hitler was a mere corporal with neither pedigree, nor wealth, nor higher education. To put it simply, he was a nobody. Hitler was aware of his shortcomings so, when he rose to power, he enlisted the services of highly-educated, highly-motivated men. Dr Joseph Goebbels’ innovative approach changed the face of propaganda; General Heinz Guderian revolutionised ground warfare with the concept of the blitzkrieg; his architect, Albert Speer, formulated the master plan for a pan-Germanic nation. Many others, too numerous to mention contributed to the initial successes of Germany in WWII.

The strength of any leader is the realisation that one does not know it all. When we surround ourselves with people we consider to be experts in their field, we learn, grow, and achieve. As a well-known analogy has taught us, the eagle that associates itself with chickens will never learn to soar.

Great Power equals Great Responsibility

I am blatantly aware that it would be extremely disingenuous of me to write an article about Hitler without highlighting this vital lesson. After having gained control of parliament and subsequently becoming Chancellor, he implemented reprehensible policies and committed heinous crimes against humanity. All the glory and adoration came crashing down and eventually drove the dictator to suicide.

In a way, this forms the crux of my argument. While, as leaders, we are called to be influential people, striving to be worthy role models, it is this very influence that has the ability to make or break us. In the wrong hands, influence can cause a great deal of pain and suffering. In the words of Sheri Dew, “having influence is not about elevating self but about lifting others.”