Are You an Authoritarian at Work?

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Lousy Leadership Hidden in Hubris

Leadership, like water, is not inherently good or bad, but it is essential. The desire for water changes depending on the conditions. Those parched in the desert are desperate for a sip of anything, while those battling floods pray for torrential rain to abate. Some are afraid of swimming or getting wet, and others frolic amongst the waves. Water can be sweetened or poisoned. It can appear frozen and inaccessible, scalding hot, or be as ephemeral as fog. It can be used to torture or nourish. How we view water and how we view leadership can vary widely.

It is important to know which style of leadership is most useful in a given situation. Far too many people do not recognize differences, and a greater number disempower themselves by not challenging corrosive leadership early on. They sip the water, and may think it tastes a little funny, but merely shrug and assume someone else will take care of it. That in itself is lousy leadership. Even a content individual contributor should feel compelled to rise and challenge notions that interfere with core values and common purpose. Poor leadership practices are not reserved for politicians. They are present in boardrooms, showrooms, shop floors and kitchens around the globe.

Each environment changes based on the knowledge and willingness of those being lead, be they employees, customers, investors, or citizens. Those who are frightened by their perceived threat of “outside forces,” tend to like strong authority figures. It is a proxy for the comfort they feel from a big blanket wrapped around them, a deadbolt on the door, or a gun under the bed. When people do not know what to do, they like to be told what to do. This is where the authoritarian begins, under the guise of keeping followers safe from them, the outside forces. In business, you may convince yourself those enemy forces are the competition or government regulation. While At home, it could be the neighbors across the street who have a different complexion or cook food that smells unpleasant to you.

Businesses do not have to be democracies, and many are not. Often, when stakes are high, they can become dictatorial. A few reassuring nods of agreement from the leader’s staff and followers is all it takes for the authoritarian style to begin.

Are you inadvertently fulfilling the predictable steps of an authoritarian dance with your workplace behavior?

Step one: 
 Do you believe all outside information sources are suspect, that everyone has self-serving agendas, and only you can properly educate your followers, your employees, clients, investors? They should only accept the information you share as being true because you have the greatest knowledge and you are the only one who can keep them safe from harm, e.g. unemployment, layoffs, poor investments. You implore others never to trust the grapevine filled with rumor and innuendo. (Aka, ‘blame the media.’)

Step two: 
 Have you ever uttered the phrase, “You are either with us, or you are against us” to members of your team? Do you consider exploratory interviews with the competition acts of disloyalty? Have you expressed explicitly or implicitly that any opposition to your ideas makes others traitorous in your eyes? You publicly or privately smear and punish others by questioning their loyalty to the team or company, and accuse them of letting outside threats into the organization. Have you called anyone who has reservations about your ideas and actions, traitors?

Step three: 
 Do you oppose ideas and notions that others bring from outside information sources? Do you try to convince those who disagree with you that their judgment is clouded and they are not thinking straight? You say their ideas are dangerous and could easily multiply and spread, like cancer. You could use other metaphors like virus, bacteria, or pollen, but nothing elicits fear, disgust, and a lack of agency like cancer. You think that description fits best.

Step four:
 To convince holdouts that the nonsense they keep spewing is falling on deaf ears, have you hastily organized morale-boosting meetings, with attendance mandatory and actual crowd size exaggerated? You point to these large gatherings with participants awash in a sea of company colors and forced enthusiasm, as ‘social proof’ of your success.

Step five: 
 For you, most of this has been fun, even exhilarating. You and your lieutenants have successfully laughed off and diminished your critics. Your followers, who once felt fearful are buoyed and emboldened by an apparent safety in numbers. Hubris strikes hard, and the smartest people in the room go dumb because they have disconnected themselves from alternative points of view. In this stage, you find ways to the change well-established rules, policies, mores, and practices, to better benefit you personally, or to demonstrate your perceived power with acts of whim. Your defense nearly always starts by arguing the letter or the law, not the spirit of the law (see Enron). At this stage, the evidence is confirmed that your primary concern as the leader is not in those you serve, but in your individual interests first and foremost. In governing bodies, personal freedoms in the name of security, are reduced faster and faster.

Soon the dance is over, and any leadership style valuing democratic virtues are left breathless.

Authoritarian-like leadership can be useful in a dramatic, short-lived crisis, where there is no time to debate or consider alternatives. However, it should never be a way of life, nor a way to run a business, family, or country. Remember, a strong leader at any level can take criticism, and will often invite it so that they can make a well-informed, deeply considered decision. Despite the bravado and often ruthless appearance, authoritarian leaders are inhabited by weak, frightened people.

To be an effective leader, never succumb to the temptation of using authority as your go-to tool. It deadens your empathy and hastens the demise of the organization and people that support you.


Originally published at Karl Bimshas Consulting.

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