“‘Enlightened’ dictators have a funny way of becoming unenlightened.”

Excerpts from Does a Great Leader Have to Be an Authoritarian?, written by Mark Athitakis for Associations Now, a publication of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE).

The best leaders are compassionate and accommodating, research shows: According to a recent survey by the consulting firm Optimum Advisors, employees value supportive leaders who invest in their development and give them autonomy.

But wait, hold on. The best leaders are actually also no-nonsense hard-liners, research shows: According to a recent survey spearheaded by leadership consultant Rajeev Peshawaria, the “overwhelming majority” of leaders around the world say that firm top-down leadership is essential for an organization’s success.

How to square this circle? I could point out, for starters, that the first study comes at the matter from the employee’s perspective and that the second study focuses on the executive’s. But that doesn’t negate the concern that there’s a gap between what leaders and employees want out of workers. I might also try to swirl the two trend lines together and suggest that what works best is a kind of compassionate dictatorship. That’s something Duke University business scholar Vivek Wadhwa argued in Quartz last year, citing the familiar examples of Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Steve Jobs, and so on.

It may help, by way of proposing a partial solution to this conundrum, to get away from the word “dictator.” Or, at least, look at more virtuous terms associated with it—certitude, confidence, strength.

Strength, then, means having a clear sense of what it is you want to get out of your employees, and the capacity to convey it to them. Because employees have a good sense of what they want for themselves … and compensation is not the only thing that’s going to motivate potential hires.

According to the Optimum Advisors study, 37 percent of respondents said “their best bosses actively helped them develop in their careers, encouraged them to take on new challenges, mentored them, and taught them new skills.” And it’s easier to do that when those employees are the ones you know are receptive to being challenged.

Which is to say that while you can be a hard-liner about the goals and directions of an organization, being a human leader means allowing others to interpret those values.

In other words, authority is welcome. But you don’t have to be an authoritarian about it.

One thought on ““‘Enlightened’ dictators have a funny way of becoming unenlightened.”

  1. Most of us have experience on both sides of this fence. Hard line bosses who fancy themselves as “leaders” chase away quality staff for the benefit of having it their way. On the flip side, I’ve seen companies lose good staff (the poor ones stay!) thanks to laissez faire leaders. Middle ground is a must!

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