Does a Great Leader Have to Be an Authoritarian?

No, but a firm vision is essential, and the best ones can convey it while still understanding employees’ needs.

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.

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

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. “Business leadership is not a popularity contest,” he writes. “The best companies are run by enlightened dictators.”

But as Wadhwa himself concedes, “enlightened” dictators have a funny way of becoming unenlightened over time. Promote yourself at the office as an enlightened dictator and that sound you’ll hear is of the people around you updating their resumes.

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. Those are good, even necessary things: Hard-headed autocrats aren’t a good fit for the C-suite, but neither are uncertain, ambivalent milquetoasts.

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, especially in the nonprofit sector. As Emily Bratcher reported here last week, lower unemployment means competition for talent is more intense, and compensation is not the only thing that’s going to motivate potential hires.  “Salaries are key—absolutely—but brand is very important too,” PNP Staffing Group CEO Gayle Brandel told Associations Now. “But many, many candidates will come on to work for an association or nonprofit because of their mission—because of their brand.”

In that sense, the executive can have it both ways, at least with new hires. If you have a vision of what you want out of your workers, and bring on the people who match that vision—a la Tom Peters’ bus metaphor—being an inspirational but firm leader isn’t so hard. 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.

For the people who’ve been around longer, or who are more naturally skeptical, though, the leader has a harder sell. But if the leader’s ultimate goal is the success of the organization, he or she must be aware that, especially these days, empathy and attention and emotional intelligence aren’t just adjuncts to good leadership but part of the thing itself. “As everything is getting automated, empathy will be a core leadership skill in the open source era,” Wadhwa writes. “It is one of the things computers and robots will not be able to do anytime soon, and will therefore be at a premium.” 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. Wadhwa again: “As long as people earnestly pursue the common purpose of the organization while living the values, they ought to be free to make whatever decisions they think are required.”

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

What do you do to clearly convey your organizational goals and mission to workers—without getting tagged as a “dictator”? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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