For as long as humans have organised themselves into groups and hierarchies, leadership has been an important skill to develop. Without some kind of leadership, groups tend to disintegrate into anarchy, with the main concern being taking what you can before the system collapses. This aspect of human nature is almost a given in a failing system.
Therefore, some guiding hand is needed, both in politics and the workplace. However, some leadership styles are dead ends in a rapidly changing workplace, while other can change and adapt to new circumstances, reshaping itself to ensure its survival.
The first system is dictatorship, or autocracy if you want to be less negative about it. All decisions come from the leader of the group, and other members are rarely allowed to comment or critique these decisions. What makes autocratic leadership desirable for some is that it’s ‘fast and efficient’; Since there’s no consultation with other members of the group, an autocrat can roll out decisions quickly.
However, autocratic leadership doesn’t work as well as many think it does, as history shows us. Most true autocracies collapse under their own weight whenever the leader dies and the successor can’t fill their predecessor’s shoes, such as most of the Eastern Bloc as the USSR imploded.
Autocracies themselves are almost impossible to maintain over time, as it’s a top-heavy system that’s destined to fall. Over time, absolute power concentrated in one individual is replaced with a slightly fairer system; bureaucracy.
Bureaucracies tend to form in organisations with a large scope and high accountability, but it can happen in any workplace. Bureaucratic organisations follow rules to the letter, rarely make accommodations for exceptional circumstances and the hierarchy is strict, if not completely stratified.
Decision making is decidedly utilitarian. Whatever benefits the organisation is the main focus, which can mean making difficult choices relating to employees. However, it also means that these decisions aren’t as stupid or reckless as an autocrat’s decision can be, as consultation with the affected parties can happen.
Where bureaucracies stumble is that they lack flexibility; they struggle to adapt to changing times, such as the retirement of senior employees or technological innovation. Inefficiency is almost built-in in a bureaucracy, as decision-making is a slow and lengthy process, and by the time the decision is settled, the scenario it was created for has past. There’s also an abundance of Yes-Men in bureaucracies, as the opportunity for advancement can be decided more by loyalty than talent.
Democratic organisations have been around since the ancient Athenian democracy, perhaps much earlier, but democracy in the workplace is a rather recent invention. A democracy puts group consensus as the priority in any decision, which means compromises should be common.
Most democratic systems still have a leader, but some work on a non-hierarchical system, such as co-operatives or communes. Nevertheless, the main idea is that democracies place the individual’s rights front and centre, so the utilitarianism of a bureaucracy is less prevalent and everybody gets a say.
While this may seem like a win-win, the consultation process, by its very nature, takes time. This means that decisions can be delayed for a protracted length of time, or just never agreed upon at all. Cliques can form, where common-sense decisions can be obstructed out of sheer spite.
In the end, while these three systems of leadership have their respective flaws, there are places for all of them. Autocracy works best in very small groups, or large ones during a crisis, while bureaucracy and democracy work best in medium-to-large groups. The key is having an eye for when each approach works in your circumstances.
At the Change Consultancy, we’re excited about taking new technology, methods and workplace philosophy to reinvigorate companies and get them running at maximum efficiency in an age where company change is fast and confusing.