Leadership, like water, is neither inherently good nor bad, but it is essential. Your desire for water changes depending on the conditions. If you are in a desert and parched, you’ll be desperate for a sip of anything, while those battling floods pray for torrential rains to stop. Some people are afraid of swimming or getting wet, and others frolic in the waves for hours. Water can be sweetened or poisoned; it can become frozen and inaccessible or grow scalding hot. Or, it can be as ephemeral as fog. It can be used to torture or nourish. How you view water and how you 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 perhaps think it tastes a little funny, but they shrug and assume everything is fine. 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 everpresent 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, guests, 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 enters, 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, weaker leaders and managers can become dictatorial. A few reassuring nods of agreement from the leader’s close staff 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? Let’s find out.
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? Do you tell them that they should only accept the information you share as true because you have the greatest knowledge, and you are the only one who can keep them safe from harm, like, unemployment, layoffs, or poor investments? Do you implore that they never to trust the grapevine filled with rumor and innuendo? This also presents itself as ‘blame the media.’
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 that your team members may have with the competition to be acts of disloyalty? Have you expressed explicitly or implicitly that any opposition to your ideas makes others traitorous in your eyes? Do 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?
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 do not think straight? Have you said their ideas were dangerous and could easily multiply and spread, “like cancer?” You could use other metaphors like a virus, bacteria, or pollen, but nothing elicits fear, disgust, and a lack of agency like cancer, so you like that description best.
To persuade holdouts that the nonsense they keep spewing is falling on deaf ears, have you hastily organized mandatory morale-boosting meetings, and then cite these gatherings with participants awash in a sea of company colors, pride, and forced enthusiasm as ‘social proof’ of your success?
If you’ve agreed thus far, you might consider the prior steps to have been fun, even exhilarating. It’s possible you and your lieutenants have successfully laughed off and diminished your critics, and your followers, who once felt fearful, are now buoyed and emboldened by an apparent safety in numbers. Your hubris strikes hard, and the smartest people in the room have gone dumb because they have disconnected themselves from alternative points of view and brutal facts. In this stage, you’ve found ways to change well-established rules, policies, mores, and practices to better benefit you personally or to demonstrate your perceived power with acts of whim to keep people guessing. Your defense to truth seekers and observers nearly always starts by arguing the letter or the law, not the spirit of the law, and certainly never involves ethics. By this stage, the evidence confirms that your primary concern as a 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 styles valuing democratic virtues are left breathless.
Candidly, 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 well-informed, deeply considered decisions. Despite the bravado and often ruthless appearance, authoritarian leaders are inhabited by weak, frightened, and deeply insecure people.
To be an effective leader, never succumb to the temptation of using positional authority as your go-to tool. Doing so deadens your empathy and hastens the demise of the organization and people that support you, and the people that support them. The tentacles of authoritarian chaos and dysfunction can tragically reach deep. Be better, and do not allow that to happen.