The Tyrant is one leadership style that casts a long shadow. I’ve worked hard to heal teams damaged by The Tyrant and have worked under them. Learn more about this leadership style and why it can be so hard to combat.

Leadership Styles: The Tyrant

Have you ever watched the show Midsomer Murders? It’s on Netflix and it’s one of my favorite shows. There’s something infinitely comforting about Inspector Tom Barnaby, his wife Joyce, and the sidekicks who accompany him into the beautiful countryside of England solving heinous crimes.

Last night, we watched an old episode from Season 9 called “Death in Chorus.” Peter Capaldi (a former Doctor Who) plays Laurence, a perfectionistic choir master leading the Midsomer Worthy choir. Laurence is determined to win the trophy in a choir competition and has his amateur choir singing a complicated Bach piece along with a few lilting madrigal-type songs.

Now, I’ve been singing in choirs since I was 11 years old and founded the children’s choir at my former church. I have sung in high school choirs, church choirs, amateur choirs. I have taken voice lessons, led worship services and rehearsals, and conducted both children and adult choirs.

And I can tell you one thing the writers of Midsomer Murders got very wrong with the character of Laurence:

Leaders don’t yell at their teams. (I’ve never seen, heard, or experienced a conductor yelling, either. Especially not with volunteers or amateurs!)

Laurence yells. He scolds. He belittles. He never praises. Everyone is a dolt – except himself, of course. He is brilliant. He has been cheated of the glory he sought leading the Cathedral choir so he takes out his misery on the amateurs, the volunteers, the housewives like Joyce Barnaby, professionals like George Bullard the pathologist who works with Detective Barnaby, shopkeepers, and estate owners alike.

In fact, if Laurence had been my conductor, I would have shown him where he could stick his baton.

He’s so obnoxious that he tells someone they’re “half a semitone” flat. Honey, if you tell me that, but you don’t tell me how to fix it, you’re a lousy conductor – and leader.

Leadership Styles: The Tyrant and the Shadow Artist

Laurence is what Julia Cameron in her brilliant book The Artist’s Way would have called a Shadow Artist. Shadow Artists are frustrated artists who, instead of fulfilling their artistic talents, pursue careers alongside artists. Art critics are Shadow Artists. Conductors may or may not be, but in the case of this character, he certainly is because instead of playing the organ at the Cathedral, he’s “stuck” conducting an amateur choir.

Because he’s filled with all that pent-up rage, he acts like a complete jerk towards the choir.

He bullies. He snipes. He never has a kind word for anyone.  He acts as if they are all subhuman, without talent, and only he can save the day.

Does this sound familiar?

There are bosses out there who fit this mold. I call them: The Tyrant.

Tyrant Bosses aren’t easy to spot when you are interviewing, so if you work with a Tyrant, don’t beat yourself up. You may not have been able to avoid it. Many come across as quite charming, sometimes even pleasantly assertive. They flatter and cajole you into working with them. Then, like any abusive relationship, it quickly becomes apparent that everything is your fault and that you can do no right and they can do no wrong.

Managing Around The Tyrant

There is no way for most people to deal with a Tyrant except to leave. If you can place a buffer layer of management between yourself and the Tyrant, you have a chance of surviving, but you won’t survive unscathed. Many people suffer from PTSD after working too long for a Tyrant.

Tyrants are the antithesis of the Benevolent Leader. In fact, when I assume a role in an organization as a Virtual VP, my chosen and learned management style is Benevolent Leadership. If there is a Tyrant in the company, I quickly sniff them out and wait for the fireworks, because Tyrant and Benovelent Leaders are the counter opposite. I joke that I am allergic to them but it is true. Like an allergic reaction to a food, I break out into psychological hives when I am near a Tyrant.

Tyrants can only be worked around, not changed, so don’t go into any work situation assuming you can change a Tyrant. The only thing that changes a Tyrant is punishment, and even that is fleeting. I once worked alongside a Tyrant Manager who was so awful to the female staff who worked with him that they complained to HR. He received a dressing down from HR and went on report for three months. He quieted his nature for three months, then, came roaring back. He was fired shortly thereafter for one too many name-calling and yelling routines; he lost his temper with a staff member in the hallway, and it was witnessed by several people. Thankfully, that company was a great company to work for, and they did not allow Tyrants to remain long.

But what if your company is like the magazine in The Devil Wears Prada where the Tyrant Boss rules the office? You can leave or put up with it. Some people, who maintain strong psychological shields, can work near Tyrants and let it roll off their backs. I am empathic and sensitive. I cannot do that. I need to put distance, both physical and emotional, between myself and Tyrants or I feel ill.

The choirmaster Laurence in Midsomer Murders was not, alas, the murder victim. I sort of wished he would be in that fictional show! Instead, at the end of the show, when his marriage falls apart, and he gets into a very public brawl in a pub with his arch-nemesis, he packs his bags and leaves.

Sometimes Tyrants do that. If they cannot get their way, and they cannot get the people around them to cower, they pick up their marbles to go play elsewhere. I’ve seen that, too. The day they quit is the day the entire staff celebrates, usually quite openly, and the company breathes a sigh of relief.

Why Are Tyrants Kept On?

Why are Tyrants kept on? If the leadership above them values Tyrannical behavior as “running a tight ship” or “getting things done,” the Tyrant stays.

Another reason Tyrants stay is that many are able to hide their behavior from superiors but not from subordinates. Superiors think that subordinates are complaining about a very tough boss when they have legitimate complaints. The Tyrant plays off of this, feeding into the narrative that they are excellent leaders and those complaining about their leadership are weak, lazy, or both.

Healing from The Tyrant: Virtual VP, Compassionate Leadership

As a proponent of Kind Leaders and Benovelent Leadership, I can say, steer clear of the Tyrant. Will you ever lose your control in a business situation and shell? Maybe. If you do, apologize and move on. The Tyrant demonstrates a history of blowing hot and cold, yelling and belittling others, much more so than a single one-off event.

If you need to replace a Tyrant, the best move is to hire a Benevolent or Paternalistic leadership style to follow. There will be wounds, psychological wounds, among the staff left in the Tyrant’s wake. It will take time and care to bind those wounds and achieve a functioning staff again. This is partially what I can do for you if you have recently let a Tyrant go. I have stepped into the breach and brought together very wounded people into a functioning team again. This is where the gift of kind leadership, empathic communication, and compassionate management works its magic.

The Tyrant. A leadership style to avoid, an ineffectual leadership style, and one that actually damages companies.