Haile Selassie was a great man who ended badly. As an almost fifty-six year old who began badly, I read his life and hope to end well.
There are lessons to be learned whether you run a non-profit, business or nation from the tragedy of Emperor Haile Selassie. If you find yourself in an “empire in decline” feel free to skip my opinions about the Emperor and jump to what we can learn.
On The Great Empire, the Declining Republic
The Emperor beat colonialism, was run over by fascism, but managed to turn defeat into victory and gain freedom for Ethiopia. Haile Selassie was brave, wily, but lived too long so the Empire died before the man. He accounted for the past, but lived long enough so that the change he pressed for became too superficial and the old ways he tolerated (even when he softened them) were too ugly.
Ethiopia picked a revolutionary course and it is hard to see (from this distance) that they chose wisely. By the end of his reign, the Emperor was failing, autocracy was corrupt, but surely in a very few years a new Emperor would have mounted the throne. The Empire was deeply flawed, as all Empires are, but are any of the peoples that once made up this vital, powerful land better off than they would have been if historical trends had continued?
He had been a great man and when he was assassinated, he died a man: more than could be said of most of those who replaced him. A two word refutation of racism once was: Halie Selassie.
What leader of Ethiopia is as he was? The Constitution of 1995 is a recipe for impotence at best and fratricide at worst. The worst often happens and did when the Communists made proud Ethiopia a ward of the evil Soviet Empire. The Emperor made many errors, but they were in pursuit of greatness for Ethiopians.
The present prime minister of Ethiopia, Abiy Ahmed, seems a promising leader, but perhaps would be better off if he were prime minster to a monarch as prime ministers should be. The anchor of the constitutional monarch is helping Britain survive Brexit: Elizabeth II graciously stands above politics, the center that is holding. If Ethiopia had been patient, Ahmed could rule while some gracious monarch reigned.
The last Emperor did not have limited power, of course, and that was an error. He needed autocracy to keep off the racist autocrats of Europe, but he outlived that time. Could Ethiopians have found a way to transition to constitutional monarchy allowing the earnest book-smart to function under the mystery of an Emperor?
Mayhap this might have been, but like the Russians they did not find a way. Reading now about this disaster from my childhood is horrific: one knows the genocide, famine, and dictatorship to come all as a reaction to the historically understandable failures of the old regime. No Emperor was ever as bad as the regimes that followed the Emperor.
Yet Empires fall not just because we the people are fools, though we are, but also because the rot comes to the top just as we are also most foolish. The people embrace Marxism, while the autocrat dodders: doom.
A must read, sad, pathetic, full of longing for what was and what might have been is the brave work of journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in The Emperor: the Downfall of an Autocrat. Kapuscinski searched out former servants of the Emperor after he had fallen, those not butchered, living in terror. They told him what things were like before the fall.
Things were in decay, not as bad as what was coming, but not ready for the times. The Emperor functioned with genius, but aurally in an visual, literature based culture. He governed through personal relationships just when the functionary that looked to the Human Resource manual was in the ascendant.
What could we learn from the mistakes of this brilliant, flawed man? What can I learn?
It turns out a lifetime’s worth of lessons.
Five Lessons from the Fall of the Empire
Decaying institutions often have three camps: the Jailers, the Talkers, and the Floaters.
One insightful courtier described the people around the Emperor at the end as: Jailers, Talkers, and Floaters. Anyone who has read about failing systems (the Soviet Union, Kodak, liberal arts colleges) knows the types.
The Jailers wish to support the leadership by jailing, firing, exiling those who are rebelling. This never works. As one person pointed out, the “peasants” in their numbers spend more time thinking about getting free than the jailers have (in aggregate) to keep them in bondage. When an organization only has force left, the organization is doomed. “We can’t speak or we will get fired” is the end.
The Talkers are nicer than the jailers, but impotent. They wish to dialog with disaster as if another binder produced or committee report will make the existential crisis go away. After the deluge, they can sit in a Paris cafe and talk about how nobody listened to their desire to talk in a revolutionary situation. Talk is no good, action is required.The Floaters always are the most numerous in decaying institutions. These folk know jailing or talking are failed strategies, but they will not do anything for, mayhap, just perhaps, they can last out the change. If they do nothing, move very little, say innocuous things, if the Empire survives, they win. If the Revolution wins, they can slip out the back door and head for Paris.
How does this happen? Where is the genius that allowed Ethiopia to survive for so many centuries against all odds?
It has been chased away, sadly, tragically, often by the Emperor in dotage. As I grow older, I look to myself and hope to learn.
Decaying institutions find themselves led by once brilliant ideas or persons and the occasional flash of brilliance staves off needed change.
The truth does not change, but I do. Moving out of the way, slowly but steadily, has been part of my strategy since I turned fifty. Who will lead when I am gone? How can I lead now while recognizing what is changing? Society evolves and so those of us who would defend eternal goodness, truth, and beauty must make sure we are doing so and not defending an old, flawed way of doing so!
The problem of changing leadership is made worse when the leader was one of the great men of his time and his opposition is often the racist colonialists or the Soviet Union. He still “got it” better than anyone, but instead of becoming the wise man, remained the autocrat. Obi-wan should give way to Luke, Luke to Rey.
One courtier put it this way:
“It seems that he alone, of the whole ruling circle, understood that the wave that had arisen could no longer be withstood. Everything crumbled; his hands were empty. So he began to yield, and more—he stopped ruling. He feigned his existence, but the ones closest to him knew that he really wasn’t doing anything; he wasn’t in action.“
Decaying institutions often Pin All Their Hopes on Dams Across the Nile: the Illusory Bold Stroke
When the Empire was slipping away, the Emperor decided that he would build dams across the Nile. There was some sense to this idea: Ethiopia needed water to stave off periodic famines. However, much wealthier Egypt had struggled to do this task with outside aid and starving Ethiopia was not going to get foreign aid for a dam.
Still the court pressed forward with the brilliant scheme of the once brilliant man, because it was brilliant, but sadly it was illusory. The courtiers in a decaying institution will always look to the bold stroke, because prudence can no longer save them and God does not send miracles at the beck of the autocrat or the committee.
Radical change was needed in the Empire, but not illusory change. The decaying institution will always prefer absurd illusions to realistic radical change, because nothing will come of the illusory change. In fact, the pockets of the mediocrities that remain will be lined by whatever project is the present dam across the Nile.
The public relations office of the Empire spun the dam as all but built when nothing but the dream existed. There is a perilous line between the bold and needed stroke and the illusions of the dying institution. God help us all.*
Decaying institutions end up hollowed out: only the mediocre remain, but they are most dangerous.
When the rot sets in, the leader or the group feels threatened by the moral, the fast intellect, or the new ideas. They begin to look for the placeholder, the sycophant, the comfortable. The mediocre always buy illusions over reality, because they can only thrive in decay. The rigor of the revolution will dispose of the Protopopov first as will the progressive conservatives. As one courtier of the Emperor put it: “Mediocrity is dangerous: when it feels itself threatened it becomes ruthless.”
What is to be done?
We must do the opposite. We must not think revolution can save us: they almost always make the evils worse. Our institutions should fire the Jailers, stop listening to the Talkers, and light a fire under the Floaters. We must look for Antony Trollope’s progressive conservatives and empower the man we need: a Cathelineau.
The person who loves the good of the past, ends the injustices, and incarnates the external goodness, true and beautiful, for a new age. He will arise, but in France Cathelineau came too late, so it was in Russia in 1917, or Ethiopia in the 1970’s.
God grant us leadership with a progressive conservative vision.
*I cannot help but think of our Republic in this regard.