The Upside Down-Side to Dictatorship

Posted on Posted in Change Management, Leadership, Project Management
By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com

When I arrived in Italy a number of years ago to visit my in-laws, I noticed Renzo di Felice's massive fourteen volume Mussolini e il Fascismo sitting prominently on the shelf in my father-in-law's office.

I was not surprised by his interest in Mussolini because he grew up in Milan during World War II and had told many stories of the difficulty of that time.  He was eleven when he bicycled with his friends to see the executed Mussolini hanging upside down in Piazzale Loreto. 

I was surprised, however, by the size of the biography.  It occupied nearly two-thirds of the shelf.

So, when we gathered for dinner later that evening I asked him what he had discovered from such an extensive account of Mussolini's life.

"I learned that dictatorship is very efficient.  A dictator can get important things accomplished in a short period of time.

"But ," he said smiling with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, "dictators eventually hang upside down in the public square."

One of the most common mistakes I see leaders make, especially when leading change, is relying too heavily on an authoritarian style of leadership.  The temptation is understandable.  People in leadership roles, whether they are business executives, project managers or government leaders, are under tremendous pressure to provide quick, decisive and simple solutions to problems.  An authoritarian style appears strong to others, provides a sense of certainty, and it makes the leader feel in control.  Bosses appreciate the leader's willingness to be accountable.  Subordinates can be energized by the clear focus and direction.  And as my father-in-law pointed out, it makes decision-making and action very efficient.

The problem, however, is that the authoritarian style is rarely appropriate for the context in which most leaders operate.  Especially during change, authoritarian leadership eventually backfires because most organization problems are neither simple, nor straightforward.  The root causes can be difficult to identify and they often cross organization boundaries and turf.  Typically, the solutions also require changes in roles, processes, beliefs and behaviors--vital subjects that can be very personal to those involved.   

As a result, people push back.  The initial satisfaction of an authoritarian style is usually short-lived because the challenges faced by the leader are embedded in interdependent systems where people have different perspectives and points of view.  Consequently, they require that the people with the problems do the work of solving them.  And unfortunately for the cause of efficiency, arriving at solutions can be time consuming and messy because it requires dialog, an iterative process of listening and discovery, and experimenting with solutions.  Even when leaders have the "right" solution in mind, the reality of interdependence requires engaging with others to validate and tailor the solution.

One project manager I spoke with recently expressed frustration with this challenge during the launch of a major new IT policy and process.  "I spent a year sitting in meetings learning about the organization," he reported,  "and I made sure I thought through the constraints each business would face when implementing a new program.  Then, I structured the solution around those constraints and was convinced I had something that would meet their criteria.

"But when I finally launched the program, I heard nothing but a chorus of negative feedback.  I was dumbfounded because even people I thought were very supportive said I didn't ask their opinion or involve them.  In a way, they were right.  I knew I understood them, but I didn't create a process to make sure they felt it.  I didn't involve them each step along the way."

The mistake the project manager made is not uncommon.  Even though he listened and his solution was on target, he did not involve those affected by the solution in the process of shaping it.   As a result, the solution was perceived to be his analysis, his idea and his policy and process.  He chose the expedient approach and "dictated" the solution as opposed to a more time consuming, participative process of guiding others toward a solution.

 Leaders should consider a participative style when: 

  • The organization is facing a crisis,
  • Problems resurface time and again,
  • There is persistent conflict,
  • People will need to learn new ways of behaving or working,
  • Current know-how won’t solve the problem,
  • Collaboration is required to solve the challenge.

Organization change always calls for a participative style of leadership.  When change initiatives fail it is usually because the pressure to meet deadlines, budgets, and competing objectives pushes project managers to be more authoritarian.

And moving up the ladder a notch, the executive sponsors of change also fail for the same reason.  Pressed to meet financial objectives, they often look past the complexity of the problem and the people who need to be involved in the solution.  Instead, they set inflexible expectations hoping their edict will motivate their change managers to drive others authoritatively toward results.  It does, but at the expense of the buy-in required for sustainable solutions.

Even stable, status quo environments benefit from a participative style of leadership because it strengthens capability and builds engaged and supportive networks. 

. . . Just the ingredients to keep you from hanging upside down in the public square.