In the Wall Street Journal Bestseller Book Open Source Leadership (2017, McGraw-Hill), Rajeev Peshawaria and the Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre make a convincing argument that the breakneck speed of the 21st Century requires a more autocratic style of leadership. An autocratic leadership style is characterized by the decision-making process, with choices being made by a single person. In contrast, a democratic style of leadership means members of the group take a more participative role in the decision-making process, often through consensus or majority.
To be accurate, the book talks about leaders needing to become a ‘Positive Autocrat’ where there is a balance between compassion and mission. Specifically, a Positive Autocrat is clear and relentless on their leadership values and purpose, while retaining the empathy and humility about everything else. Supporting skill sets include listening and reflecting, forgiving more often, earning the right to be autocratic, and giving people freedom within a framework.
While I agree wholeheartedly that this is the style of leadership that makes change happen, positive autocracy still contains the word ‘autocrat’. And, positive or not, you can agree that working for someone described as an autocrat has its challenges. Autocrats have often been described as stubborn and unyielding in their view of the world. If you have ever worked with one, most of the time they seem – through your lens anyway – to fixate on their agenda; plowing through anything that blocks the way. When someone else has an idea, it is never good enough. Ultimately you grow tired of explaining to the point where it doesn’t seem worth it. But the dilemma is, if you resort to shutting up and following orders, then you come across as lacking innovation and not thinking out-of-the-box.
So, what to do? How do you work with such leadership behaviours? Especially with someone who has a position power and authority over you? Even if your leader is well on their way to becoming a positive autocrat, you still must learn to navigate this new leadership style. Because in the current era where innovative workers are replacing knowledge ones, your survival may depend on it.
Here is my proposed solution. Or, at least something for you to think about.
1. Be autocratic. Many subordinates think that when you have a ‘bossy’ leader, the best choice is to shut up and follow orders. Gonzague Dufour, author of the book Managing Your Manager: How to Get Ahead with Any Type of Boss (2011, McGraw-Hill), says that “this is a huge mistake”. Based on my own conversations with executives, autocratic leaders told me they prefer people who ‘challenge them’ instead of those who simply comply. A colleague of mine retells a story he heard at Tesla of the CEO Elon Musk ejecting people who were not contributing from the meeting room. So, the first step towards paving your way with an autocratic-style leader is to convince yourself to speak up, not shut up.
2. Earn the right to be listened to. But there is a reason why you wanted to shut up in the first place, right? Because you still remember what it felt like the last time you said something to your boss. You nearly got your head bit off – at least it felt that way. My advice is to examine whether you have earned your right to be listened to. The brain is not always fact-based. When, how, and who says things often means as much as what is said. For instance, if this is your first year at the firm, a radical idea on client strategy may not be welcomed with open arms. Or, if you failed utterly to deliver on the previous promise, your proposal to start a new project probably will run into much scepticism. Work your way up the ladder. My friend who works at Apple told me about their culture: before you can make a Category 3 suggestion, you need to have proven your worthiness at Category 1 and 2.
3. Build your psychological security. Laura Delizonna wrote in Harvard Business Review about a concept called Psychological Safety (August 24, 2017). It is the common factor identified amongst highest-performing teams. Psychological Safety is the belief that you won’t be punished when you make a mistake. Personally, I am not keen on the term. I just think the word ‘safety’ is opposite to ‘risk-taking’ that is key to speaking your thoughts. Instead, I’m choosing to think of the concept as psychological security. But the linguistic nit-picking aside, I agree that for you to stand up for your idea, you must have a degree of confidence in the worst-case scenario. Ask yourself “What is the worst that can happen by speaking up?”. You will be surprised to find that the worst is not as bad as you think, once you have the courage to confront it.
4. Know the trigger. Working with autocratic leaders you must know where NOT to challenge. Positive autocrats are taught to be adamant on their values and purpose. Thus, to work for one you must be mindful of what those are – otherwise you will learn it the hard way. For instance, I work with a boss who values hard work and earned respect. Once, I made the mistake of overstepping my boundary along those lines; I needed my colleagues to shovel me out of the ground! While it may seem that everything sets off your leader, I challenge you to pause and observe your experiences. You will find that only certain things actually trigger her. And if you dig a little deeper, your leader’s values and purpose lie beneath. Familiarize yourself with what they are, and you can minimize the chance of having your psychological security zone busted.
5. Lose the battles but win the war. You will not win many arguments with an autocratic leader, even a positive one. In fact, you will lose most of them. The important thing is to know which are your battles and which are your wars. Battles are not important; the wars are – it isn’t a zero-sum game. Many subordinates fail to work effectively with an autocratic leader because they have unrealistic, and frankly unproductive, expectations to win on all points. For example, if your objective is to present your idea to the CEO, then having him agree to the idea is just a battle. Having your idea heard is the war. Be happy that you got an uninterrupted 15-minutes to showcase your thought; and stop blaming your boss for not having the foresight to see the point. You won your war today. Live to fight the next battle.
6. Value alignment. For a team to function well in the 21st Century it comes down to this: People work well together when their values are aligned – or at least overlapped. The Open Source Leadership research shows that professionals today are more intrinsically driven than extrinsic. That means people work for their own reasons not others’. And, since the brain likes to align its BASE: Belief, Action, Social, and Environment, we gravitate towards those who share our values. For example, if I believe in helping people become a better version of themselves and my boss has a similar belief, then we will find common ground despite our different ideas and approaches. On the other hand, if he believes in winning at all costs irrespective of others, then it doesn’t matter whether he is a positive autocrat or not. Our values simply do not match.
So, before you say your relationship with your boss is a lost cause, examine closely the real reason why you are not working well with him. Is it simply techniques and skills? Or is it an intrinsic misalignment of values? Because it’s too convenient to simply blame it on him being an autocrat!