The times they are a-changing. If you look at today’s corporate world and the way how traditional organizations and work environments are reshaped, that old Dylan tune might get stuck in your head. A lot is at stake. Executives who formerly seemed bestowed with almost papal infallibility, now suddenly see their ‚management style’ called into question. „My management style? What do you mean? I’m the boss! Everyone has to do what I say!“ Statements like these follow a line of reasoning that sets the best at the top, and declares them best, simply because they are at the top. While this kind of authoritarian leadership might prove useful in some cases, notably a crisis, in most cases it has become obsolete and even economically harmful.
In my Leadership-Z series I will explore different management styles, and carve out a modern way of leadership that complies with the spirit of the time: Leadership-Z or Leadership Zeitgeist. In a time of great societal upheaval and change in values Bob Dylan became the voice of a generation. In the corporate world of today we are likewise engulfed in a revolution, that will change the way leaders operate businesses and manage people. Let’s start with an ironic view on autocratic leadership, the good old „I’m the boss! Do as I say! Obey!“
We all have to start small – Life’s not easy at the bottom.
During my time as a student, I was an intern for a well-known local construction company. Autocratic leadership was very common. I didn’t question this at the time, and thought the company’s leaders had good reasons to conduct their business in this way.
Well, slavery has once also been a popular option. It simply saves energy, especially for the leaders, since they have more time to focus on the important things.
„Come to my office! NOW!“, „I wan’t to have it on my table by 5 o’clock!“, „Don’t bother me with details, solve the problem! — just fix it!“ sum up the company’s most familiar communication style. Autocratic leadership was employed frequently, at all levels, and with various objectives. It simply belonged to the company’s business culture.
The leaders of that company were always acting as if they were the greatest. In consequence, this made me feel very small, almost insiqnificant. I was rather impressed by this ability to feel more powerful than others. I think, at times, they felt like some kind of super heroes. And I’m sure, they really believed it. They believed that they were better than everyone else.
But where did that way of thinking come from?
Now, I know it’s in our genes! This enthusiasm for what’s most prestigious is the driving force for our awareness of being important, special, and valuable, of being someone who stands out with honor and dignity among his/her peers. That’s how we would like others to look at us.
As a consequence, the leaders at the top of such organizations start taking this for granted. It becomes an ideology. Their importance to them is guaranteed. They are convinced that they are more valuable than others. They believe, they’re not just good, they’re simply better than everyone else. There is nothing left to prove or call into question. They are the bosses, and all others are their subordinates. They are on top, because they are better, and they are better, because they are on top; it’s that easy!
These leaders, who perceive their status as a matter of elitist vocation, will wan’t others to always acknowledge that they are the best. They will wan’t others to show them nothing but respect and admiration, and the full appreciation of their greatness and fitness for the job. For them, being the best, and thus being at the top, is the single most important goal to achieve in their careers.
Prestige becomes a fasle goal in autocratic organizations
In such a company the enthusiasm for what or who is the most prestigious has the potential of turning into a false goal; a goal that can only be reached through competence, not status. But competence for them, as leaders, means being „self-efficient“. And being „self-efficient“ doesn’t necessarily entail being efficient for others or for a greater cause (f.e. the economical success of the company).
Such leaders chiefly seek to consummate their own goals. And they wan’t to reach these goals with as minimal a personal effort as possible. That’s why they think that being autocratic promotes their agenda as leaders the best (some of these autocrats might even mourn the abolishment of slavery).
But in todays changing economy and corporate environment, where will this path really take them, if everybody sets personal gain before general good, and values self-efficacy more than efficient solutions for the issues of our time?
What are your experiences with autocratic leadership? Do you believe it is altogether outdated? Or can it be seen as a valid management style in some cases? Facing a fundamental change of the way people work together to achieve common goals in the age of digitalized enterprises, how do todays leaders need to change themselves?
In the upcoming blogs of the Leadership-Z series I will cast a light on how leaders need to shift their focus from self-efficacy and problem solving to creating shared visions.