This article seeks to explore the role that leadership plays in both the perpetration and avoidance of mass atrocities. Many scholars have argued that leadership is pivotal to the outbreak of such violence but there is almost no scholarship which explores the role that political leaders play in mitigating or aggravating the risk of atrocities over time. Why is it that mass atrocities occur in some places but not in others, despite the existence of similar risk factors? By conducting a comparative analysis of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, this paper investigates the impact that the strategies of each leader had on the risk of mass atrocities. Both countries share similar colonial backgrounds, and display comparable structural risk factors commonly associated with genocide and other mass atrocities. Both Kaunda and Mugabe were key leaders in their countries’ liberation struggles, and both leaders played pivotal roles during the crucial formative years of independence. Yet the two countries have taken dramatically different paths – while Zambia has remained relatively stable and peaceful, Zimbabwe has experience mass violence and repression.