Let me be clear from the outset … what follows is not a political commentary. However, I must confess that global politics inspired it. The prompt came from a front-page article in the February 2, 2017, international edition of the New York Times. The article, titled, “Trump could offer opportunity to autocrats”, asks whether Mr. Trump’s election is “instilling new hope for a strongman-friendly America in countries such as … and nationalists in many other places who hope to follow in Mr. Trump’s footsteps and gain political power.”
Having autocratic leaders is not a new phenomenon. Historic figures such as Attila the Hun, Julius Caesar, and Ivan the Terrible were early trendsetters of this approach to leadership. Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot of Cambodia are examples of autocratic leaders in the last century. For more current examples of leaders that exhibit autocratic leadership tendencies, just look around the world and draw your own conclusion.
This apparent return of autocratic leadership, as described above, got me thinking about three specific questions: 1) Are autocratic leaders really returning to favour? 2) Will the business world mirror what is happening on the world stage and, as a result, will we see more autocratic corporate leaders? 3) If yes, can an autocratic business leader succeed in the 21st Century?
1. Are autocratic leaders really returning to favour?
Let me address the first question by setting some context for what I mean by autocratic leadership. In my colloquial, American English, it means, “My way or the highway”. In other words, “Do it my way bud or risk being humiliated, demoted, fired, or worse”. Autocratic leaders tend to make their own decisions with little or no input from their followers. They want to control all the details, squash dissenting opinions, and are frequently considered bullies and micromanagers. In its worst form, autocratic leadership produces compliance and can result in abuse, dictatorship, or totalitarianism.
But is autocratic behaviour always a bad thing? Not necessarily. In fact, in some situations, an autocratic leadership style might be effective. For example, when quick decisions are required, critical project deadlines must be driven, or stressful circumstances where firm leadership conveys a sense that someone is in charge, an autocratic leadership style might be acceptable. Political leaders such as John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, and Nelson Mandela, were at times very autocratic in their approach to leadership but they inspired individuals and their respective nations. The result was commitment by many to a vision (e.g. man on the moon, civil rights, and a rainbow nation).
If you accept my brief description of autocratic leadership, then the answer to the first question is yes, autocrats are returning to favour. Global news reports frequently describe the behaviour of world leaders such as Trump of the USA, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, Duterte of the Philippines, Putin of Russia, and Erdogan of Turkey as being autocratic in nature.
2. Will the business world mirror what is happening on the world stage and, as a result, will we see more autocratic corporate leaders?
Let’s be honest with each other, if business leaders start to mirror world leaders and become autocratic in their style, this would not be a new phenomenon. Roger Ailes (formerly of Fox News Channel), Albert (Al) Dunlap (Sunbeam Corporation), Leona Helmsley (Helmsley Hotels) and Heather Cho (formerly a vice-president at Korean Air and infamous for a nut rage incident on a plane) have all been described as exhibiting the negative side of autocratic leadership.
Cho’s autocratic behaviour stands out as one of the more memorable examples in recent time. You may remember the event since it was publicised world-wide, much to Cho’s chagrin. On December 5, 2014, Cho was a first-class passenger on one of her company’s flights scheduled to depart from John F. Kennedy International airport, in New York City. Cho, along with other first-class passengers, was given a bag of nuts, prior to the plane’s take-off. Apparently, Cho had expected the nuts to be served on a plate. When she questioned the cabin crew chief about the procedure for serving the nuts, she was informed that the correct procedure had been followed. After a loud confrontation, Cho ordered the plane’s captain to return to the gate and for the crew chief to be removed from the plane. The incident delayed the flight by about 20 minutes. The episode quickly went viral and Cho and Korean Air were heavily criticised. In the aftermath, Cho was ultimately forced to resign from the company, was subsequently found guilty in Korean court of obstructing aviation safety and given a twelve-month prison sentence.
But there are also examples of leaders who retained the respect of their followers while displaying autocratic behaviours. John Chambers (Cisco Systems), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Steve Jobs (Apple) all exhibited similar autocratic tendencies yet people continued to follow them. Apple computer would have been like any other Silicon Valley tech firm if it were not for Steve Jobs. In other words, autocratic leadership in the business world sometimes succeeds and produces incredible results. Given that perspective, I’m willing to go out on the proverbial ledge and suggest the answer to question number two is also yes, we will see more business leaders mirroring what is happening on the world stage. The question is, can they succeed in the 21st Century?
3. Can an autocratic business leader succeed in the 21st Century?
For over three decades I’ve taught current and future leaders that an empowering and participative approach to leadership is the best strategy. It’s the best way to engage, inspire and motivate employees. With all due respect to John, Bill, and Steve, I could never have imagined suggesting that an autocratic approach to leadership could be a good thing, let alone inspire commitment and followership.
Recently, however, I’ve begun to question that position because of the recent elections in the United States, Brexit issues in Europe, and other world events alluded to earlier. Another factor influencing my thinking is the early results of a proprietary research project currently underway at The Iclif Leadership & Governance Centre (the place where I hang-out). The early results suggest that truly visionary leaders may not only have to be autocratic (at least at certain times) but may be expected by their followers to display significant amounts of autocratic behaviours to achieve breakthrough results.
Now, I know what you’re thinking … there must be a catch … or a cavntil October 2017 for the full details. That’s when Iclif (www.iclif.org) will have completed the research, tabulated all the responses, drawn the full conclusions, and published them in our next book, Open Source Leadership (McGraw Hill). But, at this point, the one thing I can share with you is that in today’s social connected, 24/7 world, leaders must earn the right to be autocratic in their pursuits.
How do leaders earn that right? – by building trust. Leaders earn this right when they do four things: 1) Live and follow their deeply-held values, 2) Allow those values to drive a strong sense of purpose – a purpose that is intended to create a better future, 3) Possess a mindset that allows them to keep moving forward even in the face of stiff resistance, 4) Displaying humility by admitting when they are wrong. When leaders of the 21st Century walk the talk, their followers will come along with them even if they don’t always understand or agree.
In 1996, I made the transition from working internally as a leadership development professional to working for a large, international, executive education and development organisation. One of my earliest assignments was at WellPoint (now Anthem), one of the largest health benefits companies by membership in the United States. Along with another colleague, we were to work with Leonard D. Schaffer, then the Chairman and CEO, and his team. The work was requested by the Head of Human Resources and involved team and organisation culture development. Now, I’m sure that Schaffer would not recognise me today if he tripped over me. However, he left a real impression with me. He got impatient with the team building and culture initiative and abandoned the process (much to the chagrin of the Head of HR). I have a vivid memory of him stating, with a form of pride, that he was an autocratic leader. That being an autocratic leader was sometimes more important to get the organisation moving than it was to take the time to get people’s buy-in. The interesting thing is, his team appeared to support him.
Schaeffer later described his experience at WellPoint in an HBR article title, “The Leadership Journey” (https://hbr.org/2002/10/the-leadership-journey). When I read the article, what struck me was the analogy he used for describing an autocrat. “I would define the autocratic leader not as someone who bullies others needlessly but as the managerial equivalent of an emergency room surgeon, forced to do whatever it takes to save a patient’s life.”
The key to Schaeffer’s success was two-fold: 1) He operated from a clear set of values, a sense of purpose and a mental toughness that allowed him to persevere even in the face of resistance 2) His team and organisation trusted him to deliver on his promise of a better future.
As ironic as it must seem, in the 21st Century, truly effective leaders may well have to be autocratic in living their own values and relentlessly pursuing their desire to create a better future. So, the answer to question three may well be “Yes”, autocratic leaders can be successful in the 21st Century. In fact, they may not just be successful but may also be needed in the 21st Century. This approach worked for Schaeffer. If you earn the trust of your followers, an autocratic approach may just work for you.