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Autocratic leadership works if you follow these five guidelines

To be a successful leader, you need to be a naked autocrat. It also helps to jettison many of the shibboleths of traditional management, from stretch goals for all employees to engagement surveys.

That's not a radical view from an outsider. Rather, it comes from a consummate insider, Rajeev Peshawaria, who was chief learning officer of both Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley before turning to executive coaching and consulting.

He starts with an inconvenient truth: We have idealized democratic and all-inclusive leadership far too much, when the need is for autocratic, top-down management.

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Oddly, the vast majority of us agree: A survey he conducted found that 74 per cent of Canadians believe the best leaders use autocratic behaviours.

That's an important figure to consider, whether you are in your first job as a supervisor or in the executive suite, since collaboration and bottom-up leadership is supposed to be the rule.

The survey, of more than 16,000 people in 28 countries, had several questions. It included one naming famous leaders such as Steve Jobs, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi and Singapore's first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, along with a series of leadership behaviours they might have exemplified, evenly split between top-down and democratic.

The leaders' success was seen as emanating from their autocratic impulses. "Even Mandela and Gandhi were autocratic," he says in an interview.

But autocratic leaders are naked in the modern era. And their followers subscribe to notions of democracy and empowerment. So a balance is required, which he delineates in five keys to positive autocratic leadership:

Earn the right to use autocratic leadership: You need to develop a vision of a better future and positive values to get there that you embrace, even in the bad times.

Be autocratic about values and purpose while remaining humble, respectful and considerate with people: He calls this balancing act "The Naked Aristocratic Dance" and illustrates it in his book Open Source Leadership with a yin-yang symbol. He traces this back to his sample of leadership, notably Mandela, Gandhi and Lee Kuan Yew, who exemplified the dance.

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Provide freedom within a framework: This idea flows from his work with Coke's CEO Neville Isdell, who realized that to be effective, he needed to end the centralized command and control approach. He set out key values and told leaders in various countries they had maximum freedom within those. Mr. Peshawaria says that as companies become bigger and more bureaucratic, they need to expand the ability for people to move beyond the letter of the law to acting by the spirit of the law.

Listen, learn and reflect continuously: Avoid tunnel vision. Things will always change and you need to adapt.

Forgive more often: Holding grudges and anger pulls you down. Blaming people for failure reduces innovation. When people take reasonable risks and don't succeed, forgive. As well, you need to change your approach to managing performance. First, give up the notion each employee should be given stretch goals, nudging them to go "above and beyond." Pareto's 80/20 rule says 20 per cent of your team provide 80 per cent of your performance – so focus on stretching the folks with the top creativity and energy rather than everyone. That doesn't mean giving up on the other 80 per cent, however, since they support your movers and shakers.

Second, discard the notion that managers motivate employees. His survey suggests it isn't true: Asked whether their manager motivates them or they are self-motivated, 69 per cent said themselves (73 per cent in Canada). So managers need to find out what motivates each staff member and see how to align that with elements of the work – what can turn on the person's passion and what will turn it off. Accept that not all will be equally motivated – or equally motivated this year. The father wanting to devote time to his baby or the woman taking an extension MBA program may need a couple of years of reduced, even minimum performance, before ramping up again. That's fine, he believes, since it's the highly motivated 20 per cent that are critical (and these folks might join them in future). So talk to people about their intent to give, developing performance measures contouring to individual motivation – and, he adds, adopt an unlimited vacation policy to further extend this flexibility (your 20 per cent will still take too little vacation).

Finally, he urges you to ditch engagement surveys or at least modify them because they are deceiving you. Since the results average out all employees' responses, you aren't giving proper focus to your critical 20 per cent, who may have even been too busy to respond. If you must conduct an engagement study, arrange it so you know what those critical few feel. It adds up to big changes in your leadership, as you transform into a Naked Autocrat operating in a world of freedom.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter.

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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