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Do we need consensus-oriented leaders or benevolent dictators?

What’s best: dictatorial top-down leadership or empowering from the bottom-up? That is the wrong question, says Julian Birkinshaw, professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship, Chair, Strategy and Entrepreneurship Faculty at London Business School. Companies need both a firm and benevolent leadership: it’s a question of knowing what to do and be when.


Picture: peshkova / fotolia

On the one hand, most management literature focuses on empowering, inspiring leaders who get things done through others – on the other hand, on the front pages of the media we mostly encounter larger-than-life egos such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Oracle’s Larry Ellison, WPP’s Martin Sorrell or LVMH’s Bernard Arnaut. In brief, people who rule their organisations through a combination of charisma and aggression.

But why do management thinkers “espouse the virtues of introverted, softly-spoken leaders, when so many of the actual role models in the business world range from boisterous to bully?”, asks Birkinshaw. Well, the press does rarely report stories about the quiet leaders who stay out of the limelight. Another part of the answer is: we delude ourselves. As Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer observes: “We secretly like the confident, overbearing people because they provide us with confidence – emotions are contagious – and also present themselves as winners. We all want to associate with success.”

But perhaps the key point is that we want different types of leaders for different challenges, argues Birkinshaw: a company in a crisis needs a turnaround specialist who can act decisively, one transitioning from good to great is better off with one of the quiet team-players.

In the end, the world needs balanced leaders, equally adept at operating with two different styles. “They should be capable of stepping in and taking charge, but also able to step back and let others call the shots,” says Birkinshaw.

How do you know when to step in? Robert Burgelman developed the concept of ‘strategic dissonance’, which is a growing disconnect between what a leader is trying to do and what is actually happening. If the boss talking up the company’s digital information strategy, but salespeople are continuing to sell paper-based subscriptions, then you have an acute case of strategic dissonance. To monitor it, leaders need to get unfiltered, real-time information from those on the front line and an inner circle of advisors to help make sense of the often-contradictory views they hear. Also needed is the power to enforce the changes. Pascal Cagni, former head of Apple Europe, calls this ‘benevolent dictatorship’. He says most large firms’ decision-making processes are consensus-oriented, so when faced with big strategic calls, they default to protection of the status quo.

To overcome this inertia, you need strong leaders who are prepared to knock a few heads together and put their credibility on the line.

Read more at London Business School


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