Historic Gigster – Vlad, Leopold, Walls and Leadership Through Fear and Secrecy

Hunyadi Castle, where legend has it the ruler of Wallachia, Vlad Dracula was imprisoned.

Hunyadi Castle, where legend has it the ruler of Wallachia, Vlad Dracula was imprisoned.

I’ve written about this before, but I thought I would revisit this in light of how current media seems to stoke up fear all around us. The effective use of fear has been a a common attribute of leadership since classical times. The Assyrians of ancient Mesopotamia flayed and burned captured leaders alive as examples against rebellion. The Babylonians who eventually conquered their empire, may have been repulsed by it but could not deny its efficacy in ruling large conquered territories.

History is replete with leaders both great and small who used fear to subdue, demoralize, and control. Some of these I have written about from Alexander to Hsiang Yu to Joseph Stalin. We cannot doubt that being feared is expedient and effective. The question for us is whether that is true today, or have we “evolved” from this distant barbarism? Is fear the great motivator as we often hear in modern textbooks on leadership? And if so, is this true for the small business leader?

Let’s look at some examples from history.

Count Vlad

A quick search for history’s most notorious feared leaders quickly brings Vlad Dracula to the top of the list. Vlad the 3rd Dracula was Ruler of Wallachia in the 15th century. Early in his military career he was a hostage under the Ottomans. It is likely there were he witnessed many of the cruelties of war, including the gruesome practice of impaling. After his release he continued the practice and many history books portray him as a cruel and ambitious leader.

Vlad Dracula, knows as "the impaler"

Vlad Dracula, knows as "the impaler"

The truth is rather less fantastic. Vlad was almost continuously at war throughout his life. The practice of impaling, as well as many other cruel and violent ways to punish, was sadly not uncommon. It was also quick and simple to do to large groups of prisoners for a rushed and paranoid army on the march. The Balkan territories were the boundary between Christian Europe and the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Cruelties were part of this war-torn area. Vlad was always under threat, so using cruelty to trike fear into those he conquered was necessary.

So is perpetual fear what drives leaders to be cruel?

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown” as Shakespeare wrote in his play King Henry the Fourth. It makes for great drama, but this is not what drives most infamous rulers to be feared. While cruelty is learned, as was the case with Vlad, one could argue that he was just being expedient. What about in cases where there isn’t a constant threat to the ruler? How is fear used over longer periods of time?

King Leopold

It is difficult to speak of the suppression of the African peoples of the Congo Free State (today’s Zaire, Ruanda and Burundi) without talking about outright racism. For most colonial administrators who operated a slave-state there in the late 19th and early 20th century, the idea was that Africans were lesser beings. Yes, it could be dismissed as “typical of the time” but the cruelties in the Congo were more systematic, constant, and particularly cruel.

Leopold II, King of Belgium and the Congo Free State from 1865 to 1909

Leopold II, King of Belgium and the Congo Free State from 1865 to 1909

Using the Force Publique, a police force responsible for discipline, the value of natural resources such as rubber was greater than human life. Whole towns were exterminated, diseases decimated whole ethnic groups, and in addition to beatings, rapes, and branding typical in a slave state, the common punishment for Africans who fled or refused to work was to cut off their hands or hobble their ankles. While the transatlantic slave trade had effectively been eliminated by this time, the practice of slavery was still common in much of the interior of the continent, and especially in the Congo.

Colonial administrators did not fear rebellion because the suppression was so violent and absolute. The only concern, though remote, was that the rest of the world would find out, but even that took some time. Even today, there are still apologists who downplay the cruelties perpetrated in the Congo Free State. The king of Belgium at the time, King Leopold II, benefitted directly from the wealth of the rubber extracted the colony. He is still remembered in many circles as a good monarch credited with improving the state of violence once the international pressure became too great. While history will judge him sternly, during his lifetime that was one crowned head that did not sleep uneasily.

Yet, he ruled through absolute fear. It was effective and profitable. What is different from Vlad is that he did so in relative secrecy from his European peers. The people he ruled were rendered completely powerless to revolt or to seek justice. One could argue that the lesson is to be feared by those who are directly ruled but that this should coincide with a complete isolation of those that are subject to that rule. As long as a leader can use the suppression to also control the flow of information out of the ruled land, then the consequences are minimal.

East Germany

There are many modern examples were fear is used to suppress the people as well as their voices. One particularly notorious example occurred under Communist rule in East Germany from 1949-1990. Under communism, it is no longer a single ruler that wields power, but a committee of appointed officials, i.e. the Communist Party. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose writings form the basis of Communist government, laid out a much more egalitarian, free, and some would say utopian vision of government, this was never achieved under the Communism of the Cold War which coincides with the existence of East Germany as a separate state.

Late August 1961. An East Berliner is seized by the East German police as he attempts to escape to the West. From the booklet " A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall ."

Late August 1961. An East Berliner is seized by the East German police as he attempts to escape to the West. From the booklet "A City Torn Apart: Building of the Berlin Wall."

Under Communist rule, fear was a very real and common part of life for every East German. Because of severe scarcity of goods and services, most people would regularly report on others in order to receive better wages, gifts of food, and other benefits. It is estimated that as much as 40% of the people informed on others. With such incentives, many of those reports were for minor infractions or even fabricated.

Nonetheless, the state’s police force, the Ministry of State Security (Stasi) was ruthless in its methods, using fines, harassment and social ostracism as well as more severe punishments such as imprisonment, physical punishments and also torture to extract confessions. It operated a vast network of secret detention centers where serious human rights crimes occurred, but this was all done in relative secrecy.

The Wall

One can’t talk about East Germany without also mentioning the Berlin Wall. From what we’ve discussed so far, the lesson from history seems to be that fear is a very effective form of social control. However in modern times it is no longer acceptable to use public cruelty, so the use of fear needs to be hidden from outside eyes. Yet, it also needs to be firmly believed by those inside the borders of a repressive state – this is why walls are built.


Outside influences, often ones that will challenge the legitimacy of the repressive state, pose the greatest threat to the state. As a matter of fact, most repressive states will claim that even internal rebellions originate from outside the borders. Even if this is purely a fabrication, it is an extremely effective justification for the continued repression of the ruled people.

It is therefore logical that a repressive state that wishes to further demonstrate the divide to its own people seeks to build a wall. Even if ineffective (most border walls in history were breached eventually), the symbolic meaning of a wall is far more powerful than its actual effectiveness as a barrier.

A wall serves to define the outside as foreign, dangerous, and barbaric. In contrast what is inside the wall is proclaimed to be familiar, safe and civilized. This is maintained by repressive states even if the repression necessary to maintain the façade is violent, barbaric and uncivilized in actuality. In repressive states, the wall forms a perfect foil to maintain the illusion of legitimacy because it seeks to hide any outside information that would suggest otherwise.

Fear in the Modern Workplace

It is important to recognize the historic legacy of fear and cruelty as well as the control of information in and out of an environment through the use of walls. They have proven to be extremely effective instruments of control for leaders. Fear may bring a simulated peace to the workplace, but ultimately is leads to inactivity. It is likely this was the real reason for the downfall of the Berlin Wall and the stagnation of Cold War Communism. Why would any respectable manager bring this same sentiment to the workplace?

While perhaps slightly less harsh, modern employers use everything from employee reviews, reduced bonuses, suspensions and even firing to enforce compliance from their teams - financial security is the instrument of choice. They presume that fear will help enforce compliance and loyalty. They even use it to prod their employees, because it is so widely bandied about as an “effective motivator” in popular media, business schools and YouTube videos.

The historical record stands in contrast to these presumptions. Walls fall or are circumvented, information flows, now more than ever before, and fear loses its potency when people learn that there are alternatives. Over time, fear actually does far greater damage to the employees, the team, and ultimately the entire business.

This blog post was simultaneously published in The Gigster 'Zine, a newsletter published by the Colégas Group discussing new and innovative part-time opportunities & success strategies for anyone with a college degree. To sign up for the newsletter, click here.

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