Why the Authoritarian Leadership Style Won’t Survive 2020
The ‘command-and-control’ leadership style needs to die — but do we always recognize what it looks like?
As we plunge into the new now, the post-pandemic market, it’s more important than ever for leaders to understand the difference between being authoritative and authoritarian. It’s hard to believe that in 2019, we were still reading stories about companies with toxic work cultures. They were still out there, but did they survive this disruption? Workforce engagement and communications are more critical than ever. In many cases, when stories of work culture horror stories have been splashed across the headlines, they can be traced back to a hierarchy where the CEO and leadership team set the tone for the entire organization.
There are many different presentations of an authoritarian culture. There’s the classic “Bad Boss” archetype who barks out orders, rules through fear and doesn’t ask for anyone else’s opinions. But it’s usually not that obvious. In most cases, a leader is less of a dictator and more of an ego-driven “cult of personality,” around which the entire organization rotates and responds.
One of the best examples of this in recent memory is the saga of WeWork and its former CEO, Adam Neumann. Neumann lavished gifts and trips on his staff, sending them to summer camp and encouraging them to drink during work hours. Sounds great, right? But it turned out that all of this “fun” came at a price. Neumann reportedly took his company’s hard-partying culture to an extreme, with reports of workplace harassment, retaliation, and a “frat-boy” environment. Former staff members have told stories of coming into the office and finding out they’d been replaced overnight or suddenly reporting to someone who’d previously been their junior. Neumann reportedly reveled in his own power, making unilateral decisions that affected his entire staff. He built an organizational structure in which everything revolved around his ego and moods.
This behavior caught up with Neumann just as the company was preparing to go public. When WeWork filed its S-1, the company’s ugly financial secrets came to light, highlighting Neumann’s poor business decision-making skills. Ultimately, Neumann was pushed out by investors in an attempt to save the company. In a matter of months, WeWork went from a superstar startup with a $47 billion valuation to slashing 4,200 jobs and selling off assets to the highest bidder. Current and former employees now admit that there were red flags about Neumann’s leadership capabilities early and often. Still, no one felt comfortable speaking out about them.
From the outside, it might have looked like WeWork’s leadership was committed to creating a fun, meaningful place to work. Many employees joined the team looking for a sense of purpose and belonging. But the problem was, the only sense of purpose the company had was focused on Neumann himself instead of a greater cause. That kind of leadership is unsustainable.
As we move forward, one thing is clear: companies that are still clinging to a command-and-control hierarchy can expect trouble. If you see signs of this management style in your company, there are steps you can take to correct it before it’s too late.
Here are four questions leaders should be asking about themselves and their teams:
- Do you practice self-awareness? In other words, how aware are you of your natural leadership attributes and strengths? How do you react under pressure and stress? How would you rate your ability to work effectively with a variety of different people and situations? Can you let go of being right or in charge? How good are you at asking questions vs. telling people what you want them to do? If you find that you struggle with letting go of control and need to win most if not all discussions, you are exhibiting authoritarian traits.
- Do you demonstrate accountability? As a manager, are you taking ownership of your and your teams’ responsibilities and results? Do your behaviors reflect the culture and values you want your organization to represent? Are you asking for feedback and input as a leader? Are all members of your team and organization holding themselves accountable?
- Are you challenging the status quo? This one is a difficult one for leaders, especially if things appear to be going well on the surface. Are you having a necessary and courageous dialogue, asking the tough and unpopular questions? Are you curious and comfortable in challenging the norms? Are you creating a safe environment where people are comfortable to challenge decisions, make mistakes? Are you going along to keep the peace?
- Are you able to make strong decisions? Decisiveness, even in the face of adversity, is the hallmark of a manager. Can you make informed decisions, even if you don’t have 100% of the data? Are you able to take risks and pivot in a new direction if the situation demands it? And most importantly, can you communicate your reasons for the decision to your team in a way that will rally them to follow you? Are you able to delegate decision making to your direct reports and teams where they are engaged, empowered, and have decision making authority? Are you developing agile teams and an organization?
This new era of business will require managers who are brave, ethical, and authentic. Authoritarian leaders, even when masked as startup “whiz kids,” lack the qualities required to steer a company to long-term success. Worse, they lack the desire to change or learn these skills. Their decisions are based on ego instead of the greater good. Sooner or later, that kind of management leads to financial and operational disaster.
WeWork is one of many cautionary tales, and no company is immune. In fact, since 2000, 52 percent of Fortune 500 companies have either gone bankrupt, been acquired, or cease to exist. To avoid the same fate, the time is now to make the transition to agile leadership. Doing so now will ensure that your company continues to thrive, no matter what changes may come.