The bully, the doubter and a question of power

Conflict and calm: Cummings (left) was an advisor to the British PM. Obama was US President.

Do power and bullying go hand in hand? From Dominic Cummings to Vlad the Impaler it seems they do. But a memoir by Barack Obama, out tomorrow, overflows with modesty and self-criticism.

The atmosphere in the briefing room was tense. The young employees watched in alarm as their boss stalked around the room issuing orders, his eyes filled with a fierce rage.

As the meeting drew to a close, he hit them with a veiled threat: “I’ll see some of you next week”. It was enough to make even the most confident quake.

Now, the tables have turned. This weekend, one story dominated the UK’s headlines: the downfall of Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s bully-in-chief and the man who made the threat above. The PM’s chief adviser left Downing St on Friday bearing a cardboard box.

Perhaps best known for his lockdown trip to Durham, the country’s de-facto project manager rose to prominence as the mastermind behind the successful Vote Leave campaign during Britain’s EU referendum.

But Cummings is more than just a strategist – he is also a big thinker; a behind-the-scenes maverick with radical ideas.

In an astonishing 133,000 word blog post inspired by Silicon Valley start-ups, he set out his vision for Britain as a hub of science and education, a place where intelligent people trained in everything from statistical modelling to synthetic biology can rule unconstrained by the red tape of bureaucracy.

And it seems that Cummings will stop at nothing to achieve his goal.

He once had a female adviser marched out of Downing Street by armed police; and fired people who dared to confront him over his behaviour. He has been publicly described by colleagues as “a mutant virus” and a “career psychopath”.

Many people believe it is impossible to rise to the top without being a bully.

Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first female Prime Minister, terrified foreign politicians – French President Francois Mitterand famously said she had “the eyes of Caligula”.

In 2008, UK Apprentice star Alan Sugar, best known for the line “You’re fired”, was condemned by an anti-bullying charity for “publicly humiliating” contestants.

Many powerful figures appear to have adopted the strategy of the 15th Century Romanian ruler, Vlad III, who had his enemies impaled on stakes – and later became the model for Dracula.

Yet these egomaniac monsters contrast sharply with the content of a new autobiography written by former US President Barack Obama, which is predicted to become one of the best-selling books of all time when it is published tomorrow.

In A Promised Land, Obama, formerly one of the most powerful people on the planet, is full of self-doubt.

He wonders if running for office was an act of self-indulgence, accepts his failures as a husband and mourns his mistakes.

The book paints a picture of a leader who, far from tearing other people down, is concerned with their success. He intervenes when female employees complain of sexism and refuses to scapegoat his inner circle when things go wrong.

And when he wins the Nobel prize, he remains as humble as ever, asking incredulously: “For what?”

So, are all powerful people secretly bullies?

Power trip

Definitely, say some. Barack Obama is an exception. The vast majority of people in positions of power today – from politicians to business executives to pop stars – owe their success to their willingness to bully other people until they get their way. Dominic Cummings may have left Downing Street, but the culture of fear that exists at the top of many organisations is here to stay.

Not any more, say others. It is true that in the past some had no choice but to bully their way to the top. But workplaces have evolved. They are more diverse, more tolerant – and less dominated by men. Dominic Cummings’s departure, which many believe was influenced by the PM’s partner Carrie Symonds, shows that bullying is no longer the key to holding on to power.

You Decide

  1. What should be done to stop bullying?
  2. Does power always corrupt?

Activities

  1. Today marks the start of Anti-Bullying Week in the UK. Make a poster to spread awareness of the problem of bullying.
  2. Compile a list of five powerful people. Do you think they are good or bad people? Are any of them bullies? Write half a side explaining your thoughts.

Some People Say...

“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), Italian diplomat, philosopher and writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed by scientists that bullying is often linked to social status or social hierarchy. One survey of nearly 2,000 American school students found that “coolness” and “aggression” were highly linked, and that whilst victims were often socially marginalised, bullies enjoyed a high social standing among their peers. Another 2013 study showed that this trend continues into adulthood – researchers found that workplace bullies often receive positive job evaluations.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds why people become bullies. Research by UK youth charity Ditch the Label suggests that bullies are far more likely than other people to have experienced trauma, while people who have experienced bullying are twice as likely to go on to bully others. Others disagree. According to American anti-bullying specialist David Chango: “The old school thinking about bullying was ‘Oh, he’s just jealous’. The new line of thinking really indicates that bullies feel great”.

Word Watch

Durham
Cummings was widely condemned after it emerged that he had travelled from London to Durham with his family during lockdown when his wife had coronavirus symptoms. The PM said he acted “reasonably and legally”.
Silicon Valley
Cummings is particularly impressed by Parc, the Palo Alto Research Center. However, Silicon Valley is also known as a place of sexism, bullying and overwork.
Synthetic biology
A new interdisciplinary field which involves applying engineering principles to biology.
Red tape
Official rules and processes that are unnecessary and delay results. Cummings has repeatedly clashed with members of the civil service.
Caligula
The third Roman emperor who ruled from 37-41 AD. He has gone down in history as a cruel and tyrannical leader.
Scapegoat
A person who is made to take the blame for the wrongdoings of others. The term originates from a ceremony during the Jewish holy day Yom Kippur, in which the sins of the people were symbolically placed upon a goat. The goat was then sent into the wilderness.
Nobel prize
Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples”.
Jekyll-and-Hyde
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was written in 1886 by Robert Louis Stevenson. The book tells the story of Dr Jekyll, who believes that “man is not truly one, but truly two”. He invents a potion to separate his two sides and releases a murderous alter-ego, Mr Hyde.

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