How to Distinguish a Tyrant from a Leader

Tyrants and leaders can appear superficially similar. So, who are you following? Let's look at how you can distinguish great leaders from terrible tyrants.

How to Distinguish a Tyrant from a Leader

Tyrants and leaders can appear superficially similar. So, who are you following? Let's look at how you can distinguish great leaders from terrible tyrants.

Terrible Tyrant, or Great Leader?

To the untrained eye, a tyrant can look like a leader. After all, the tyrant’s overbearing personality is often somehow magnetic in its sheer arrogance. Their grandiose promises fill us with a sense of safety, giving us easy answers.

Tyrants are masters at disguising their personal agendas as a light in dark times, creating the illusion of inspired leadership. They appeal to our outrage and prejudice, making the embittered and disenfranchised among us feel “heard.”

Ultimately, a leader is someone we want to follow, whereas a tyrant is someone we feel coerced to follow. So it’s crucial we verse ourselves on how to recognise tyrants from leaders.

While tyrants and leaders can appear superficially similar, it’s possible to deconstruct their messages and identify one from the other. So, let’s run through eight key characteristics that set leaders and tyrants apart.


#1 Tyrants build walls, Leaders build bridges

Tyrants create an illusion of safety by building walls around existing power structures, no matter how flawed they are. Rather than encouraging people to analyse and fix internal problems, they tell them that nothing is wrong with “us”. Rather, it’s always the fault of an external “them.” To prosper, we have to wall “them” out.

Conversely, leaders build bridges. Leaders invite external groups in to help solve existing problems, enrich existing wisdom and ultise diversity in opinion to pool solutions. Where tyrants amplify disharmony, leaders encourage a spirit of shared humanity.


#2 Tyrants divide, Leaders Unite

Tyrants inevitably employ a militaristic “divide and conquer” tactics. They see groups of people as things to be conquered (rather than nurtured). And they know this will be much easier to do if they break those groups down into smaller sub-groups.

People are weaker as individuals than they are as a whole, after all. The more tyrants can isolate people from one another, the easier those people will be to control and convert to their “cause.”

Leaders, on the other hand, seek to unite people in order to create a shared reality and a stronger, more harmonious future. Leaders focus on the glory of the group rather than their own individual glory.


#3 Tyrants use negative language to intimidate, Leaders use positive language to inspire

If you deconstruct a tyrant’s message, you’ll usually find the following elements: Populism, Sensationalism, and Blame. Tyrants use a negative communication style. They persecute, ridicule, and demonise those who oppose their own agenda and encourage their followers to do the same. Tyrants bring out the worst in humanity.

On the flip side, leaders use persuasive yet positive language. They invite the opposition to consider their points of view, highlighting why they see their stance as beneficial to the common good.  

Leaders empathise with the positions of others. Even when those others appear hostile at first. Leaders want everyone, even people who don’t agree with them, to prosper. Leaders, therefore bring out the best in humanity.   


#4 Tyrants speak of a dim future, Leaders speak of an evolving future

According to the tyrant, everything is going wrong. Society is in a state of deep decay. And only by re-instituting past “glory days” can we hope to prevent the incoming catastrophe. This tyrannical rhetoric creates a sense of urgency; people must elect the tyrant or else.

On the other hand, leaders have a vision for a better future. They ask us to help them create it and propose solutions for pressing issues, such as climate change and political turmoil. Leaders challenge us to change and evolve.

A tyrant’s mission is to amplify fear—fear of not having enough, of not being enough.  Leaders seek to inspire hope for a better tomorrow.


#5 Tyrants are protectionists, Leaders are collaborators  

Tyrants tell us that our resources are limited. And fast running out. Tyrants espouse a manipulative agenda. There is only one pie. And, in order to enjoy a decent quality of life, we have to cut the largest slice for ourselves.   

Leaders, on the other hand, believe that by sharing our resources and using them more wisely, we can build a bigger pie for everyone.


#6 Tyrants sell themselves as saviours, Leaders act as mentors

Tyrants tell us that there is only one person on Earth capable of rescuing us. From the impending apocalypse of social and economic distress: Them.

Leaders, on the other hand, believe that we all have the power to save ourselves. They offer to step in as mentors and nurture our innate capabilities to grow.


#7 Tyrants tell us what we want to hear, Leaders tell us what we need to hear

Many tyrants act like they are telling us the “hard truth”. Yet, when we examine their messages more closely, we see that tyrants offer unrealistically easy solutions. If we just get rid of “threats” and maintain the status quo, we can prosper. It’s that simple, they tell us.

Leaders don’t gloss over complicated problems. They tell us there are no easy answers. Even though they know we don’t want to hear that. However, when given a chance, leaders show us that big problems can be broken down into smaller parts and eventually solved.


#8 Tyrants are secretive, Leaders are transparent

Everyone has flaws; everyone makes mistakes. Leaders know this and are willing to acknowledge and apologise for their own flaws and errors. Leaders are transparent and reveal what, exactly, they plan to do.

Tyrants tend to shun these practices. After all, they’re attempting to project an image of flawlessness, of Godliness rather than mere humanity. Likewise, if their “easy answers” are investigated too deeply, it will quickly become apparent that they won’t actually work. Tyrants, therefore rely on secrecy and lies to succeed.

Leaders or Tyrants? The choice is ours

Both in politics and organisations, we’re going through a period of intense change. The Internet is reshaping how we live, work, and communicate. Our society is becoming at once more global and more polarised and individualistic.   

Many people are feeling scared, confused, and lost. Under such conditions, both great leaders and terrible tyrants can easily emerge, forever altering the landscape of our civilisation. The choice is up to us: Which force will take precedence as we advance? Tyrant or leader?

Kamal Sarma, CEO Rezilium

Chair RUOK Conversations Think Tank

Original article posted on

Find Your Next Event

Thank you for joining us!

Great! Keep an eye out on our updates and newsletters.