52: Dictatorship in Decision Making – Big Time Leadership Mistake


concept photo of conflict between subordinate and boss. angry yo
Does your boss lead via dictatorship, facilitation, or something else?

This episode is based on Chapter 5 of my book “The Top Ten Mistakes Leaders Make.”

In this episode I cover:

  • Feedback from a maverick millennial leader
  • Dictators deny the value of individuals.
  • The major players in any organization are like its stock- holders: They should have a say in its direction.
  • The one who does the job should decide how it is done.
  • “Flat” organizations are the model of the future.

Getting Beyond “I Know All the Answers”

Dictatorships have their advantages. I spent most of the 1980s working in communist Eastern Europe, observing firsthand, countries such as Romania, East Germany, and Russia that were run by dictators. Life was quiet and predictable back then, especially when compared to the economic and political chaos that characterizes these same nations today. For decades all was calm and quiet in Eastern Europe, from Yugoslavia all the way to the eastern reaches of the Soviet empire bordering the Pacific: quiet, calm, and oppressed.

Dictatorships are like that. They take the fun out of life and break the human spirit that longs to soar with achievement. I can’t begin to describe the dejected look of oppression I saw in the eyes of the common workers in Eastern Europe in those years. Crossing the borders in those days from western Europe into the East was like going from color TV to black-and- white. The gleam of joy and the fierce eyes of competition were rarely seen in whole generations that grew up in those times.

One of my greatest joys during those years of working in Eastern Europe was being in Berlin on November 9, 1989—to see, firsthand, the wall come down. I call it “history’s greatest prison break.” Freedom broke out everywhere. I think that the date of 11/9 changed the world as much or more (at least for the better) than 9/11! A change for the good of the human spirit and for millions of oppressed peo- ple who could now finally become leaders.

“Take away my people but leave my factories and soon grass will grow on the factory floor. Take away my factories but leave my people and soon we will have a new and better factory.” —Andrew Carnegie

Another label for the dictatorial style of leadership is what I call the “apostolic” view of decision making. This person believes that he or she has special knowledge or an anointing that gives him or her the inside edge on truth: “I know the answers, because I have been given special insight, knowledge, and position. Therefore, I will determine our direction, for I am the leader and I know best.” It amazes me that such people even get into positions of power.

I recently ran into an old friend who told me of his recent experience working under a pastor who had this apostolic type of attitude. He ran his church as a corporate dictator would, making sure that every decision, large or small, was made only by him down to personally signing all the checks. He surrounded himself with the kind of yes-men who would submit to this domineering style. It became a miserable place to work, and my friend finally had the joy of retiring out of the misery. Not long after my friend left that church, the pastor crashed and burned in moral failure. Though he controlled everyone around him so completely, he apparently could not control his own passions.

In a very similar case, I received a call from a sheriff in Florida. At first I thought I was in trouble, but no, he was an elder in his church and had just read an earlier version of this book. All of the lay leaders in his church felt that the pastor was going in the wrong direction, and he wanted my advice. They were being smothered by a closed-minded leader. He asked me, “Are we right to oppose our pastor when we all disagree with him as one?” I advised him to try and reason with the leader as a group … with the wisdom of the many. The Bible says, “In the presence of many coun- selors there is wisdom.” I take that to mean that the best direction for the whole is the collective wisdom of all the leaders. Unfortunately in this case, their pastor was not open to input.

Several times in my career, I have worked for bosses like that. After I had poured countless months of energy into a cause, my work would go up in smoke because the boss just decided that we were going to do some- thing else. No dialogue—just dictatorship.

Don’t be a jack-in-the-box leader. This is the person in charge who pops out of his box and declares, “It’s been decided.” Don’t even think about uttering that phrase! It communicates that a decision was made behind closed doors that others had nothing to do with and that they can do nothing about. It deflates the human spirit like the mainsail going limp in the middle of a yacht race. All of a sudden, one feels dead in the water. The energies that were so focused before are suddenly nowhere to be found. In anger, most people will reply to that deadly phrase with, “Oh yeah? Who decided? Just let me get my hands on him!”

THE BEST OFTEN COMES FROM THE BOTTOM

At a recent employee briefing, I asked our team of sixty home office staff this question: “Where will the greatest ideas come from in our organization? Who will pioneer the greatest innovations? From what source will our great strides forward originate?” It was a trick ques- tion—I believed it was them! I went on to explain one of my funda- mental beliefs about leadership: The greatest ideas bubble up from the workers. “They will come from you, not from me,” I told them as they stared at me in disbelief. For some reason, I don’t think anyone had ever told them that, and I’m not sure they believed me.

We know by looking at history that the greatest strides forward in any field usually come from the “radical fringe,” as opposed to the institutional core. I mentioned this in the last chapter as we looked at cultivating mavericks. Very seldom does the belly of an institution bring forth great bursts of creative energy and progress in a movement. Those on the fringes are the ones who usually come up with the best ideas. Look at the iPod, developed by a computer company and music outsiders! It single-handedly wiped out Sony, which had dominated the portable music market for decades with its Walkman portable CD players, and more recently with MP3 players.

“Fundamental values are not chosen from thin air based on the desires of executives, they are discovered within what already exists in an organization.” —Jim Collins, Built to Last

An illustration from our kitchen shows how this principle works. Having been brought up in a German home, one of the meals we often enjoyed as children was a dish called griesbrei (pronounced “GREASE-bry”). Because my parents didn’t have much money when I was growing up, we had several meatless meals every week, one of them being griesbrei, which was basically souped-up Cream of Wheat. You bring the Cream of Wheat to a boil very slowly with milk, then add vanilla, eggs, and sugar. Once the porridge is done, you fold in whipped egg whites and serve it with milk, blueberries, and bananas. Because I have carried that tradition on to my children, they beg me to make griesbrei when they come home to visit.

How do you know when the griesbrei is ready? Huge bubbles begin to arise from the bottom, exploding on the surface. That is the magic signal.

What a great image that perfectly represents what my role as a leader is. It is to get those big bubbles to arise and burst forth on the surface of our organization. Those bubbles are the great ideas that I have to find hid- ing among the troops, maybe even at the bottom of the pot. A recent exam- ple comes from the world of brand- ing. For a long time, all logo products, giveaways, and displays at WorldVenture were controlled by my office to assure that our brand mes- sage was consistent. But about a year ago, we hired some fresh blood in recruiting and I turned them loose on branding. Wow! I have never seen such cool stuff go out to the public with our logo. They are young, fresh, and alive with ideas that I have never dreamed of considering. It reminded me again to avoid that desire to be an intellectual control freak. “Blessed are the control freaks, for they shall inhibit the earth!”

Sydney J. Harris, on dictato- rial bosses: “It is impossible to learn anything important about anyone until we get him or her to disagree with us; it is only in contradiction that character is disclosed. That is why autocratic employers usually remain so ignorant about the true nature of their subordinates.” —Field Newspaper Syndicate

Dictators never make griesbrei. They never even turn the burner on. Their style is more akin to keeping the workers in the dark with the lid on the pot.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., the famous chairman of the board of IBM for many years, believed passionately that the best ideas would come from the fringes. He said, “Strangely, the expounders of many of the great new ideas of history were frequently considered on the lunatic fringe for some or all of their lives. If one stands up and is counted, from time to time one may get knocked down. But remember this: A man flattened by an opponent can get up again. A man flattened by conformity stays down for good.”

FACILITATIVE LEADERSHIP

One big mistake dictators make is believing their own press reports. They think that the bigger they are, the more they know, and the more they should control others. In reality, leadership has more to do with influencing resources. The higher I move in leadership, the more resources I must manage. The greater the leader’s responsibilities, the more he or she recognizes the intrinsic worth of the followers.

This is facilitative leadership. My job is to help those I lead release as much of their potential as possible. I do not do the work; others do it under my leadership. This is, in fact, a biblical approach to accom- plishing the work of God on earth: “He gave some [leaders] as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping [empowering] of the saints for the work of service” (Eph. 4:11–12 NASB). God never intended his earthly leaders to control their charges as dictators, but to equip them to do the work that must be done:

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder…. Be shepherds of God’s flock … not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being exam- ples to the flock…. clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” (1 Peter 5:1–3, 5, emphasis mine)

NOTE: You can find the charts referenced here.

FLATTENING OUT THE ORGANIZATIONAL CHART

Let’s talk organizational charts and see how this translates to paper. Chart A shows a typical organizational chart. It is based on the domineering model that puts someone at the top, controlling everything and everybody “below.” This model does a great disservice, because it suggests that the more one goes “up” the organizational ladder, the more important one is and the more others are “under” that top leader responding to his or her commands.

Two alternate models I have observed are found in charts B and C. On the surface, chart B basically looks like chart A turned horizon- tally. But this illustrates the notion that a horizontal organizational structure is more efficient in releasing the potential of the workers scattered throughout the organization. I like this horizontal approach because it gives the idea of “leading the charge.” I, as the leader, am at the front of the troops, leading them into battle, yet I am not viewed as the dictator who dominates from the top. The leader goes first, tak- ing others with him or her, but is not viewed as being at the top of a mighty pyramid.

Chart C represents a flat networking model of organization, where the leader serves as a type of clearinghouse function between the various players or divisions of the group. Notice that there is communication and coordination not only between the leader and each of his or her key players but also among the key players themselves. The leader must not control all information as if he or she were a central switching station. I actually like chart C very much, and we at WorldVenture have moved toward this as we have put everyone in the organization on teams. Each of these circles represents a team. Leaders lead teams that fan out to other teams as the organization fans out around the world.

Chart D is a team-centered leadership structure where teams overlap in their tasks. This is probably more accurate than the stationary chart C, since lines of responsibilities usually overlap somewhat in all organizations. At times, we always get into each other’s business! Where all the teams intersect at the center of this chart is where leadership happens. Not all teams come to the core of the organization either. Imagine a next level of circles emanating out from the first series as teams fan out.

A fifth organizational chart illustrates the servant-style leadership of Jesus Christ. In the inverted pyramid in chart E, everything rests on the shoulders of the leader. It’s more of an attitude than anything else, where leaders realize that they are carrying the organization on their shoulders and that they need to make everyone else become successful.

As I have grown in my own leadership responsibilities, I have come to realize that I bear more and more of the burdens of more and more peo- ple. Recently someone commented to me, “It must feel great to be the leader of such a large organization.” I chuckled as I shared with him that, in fact, it is not what it looks like from the outside. The higher you go in leadership, the more headaches you bear from other people’s problems. I love the scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan, when Tom Hanks’s char- acter’s unit asks him why they never hear him complaining about the lousy mission they are on to save Private Ryan. He responds, “I’m a captain, I don’t gripe to my men. Gripes go up. Not down.” You can be sure that the captain was carrying a huge burden of leadership on this mission … he was figuratively, and sometimes literally, carrying every one of his men on his shoulders.

DECISIONS BASED ON DIGNITY

Where I work we have developed a number of core values, which help determine our decision-making style. Two of the core values speak specifically to this issue of decision making and where ideas are going to come from:

Individual dignity. We diligently maintain and promote the dignity and worth of each individual within our organization worldwide. People with the proper sense of spiritual and emotional well-being are freed for productive ministry that is com- mitted to goal-oriented planning and team accountability.

Corporate creativity. We encour- age creative and innovative strategies directed by the Spirit of God and implemented through policies and structures, which are characterized by mutual trust and cooperation.

In his book Liberation Management, Tom Peters emphasizes this strong new trend toward flat organiza- tions. He has worked with many companies that are thriving in different industries and in different countries, and they all share one gen- eral characteristic: They are discarding the bureaucratic, hierarchical habits of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. No longer are successful organ- izations using hierarchies and rule books to solve their basic problems. The old model was to use rule books to try to harness hundreds of thousands of “erratic, selfish human with a common purpose and to manage it in a pre- dictable, scientific way. But those kinds of organizations become buried under their manuals and committees, having been left behind by their flat, lean rivals.

One word of caution, however, on this issue of diplomacy and democ- racy in decision making: Don’t throw out the baby with the bath water. An entirely leaderless organization is represented by chart F, the Chaos Model of Organizational Life. Some people today are advocating just such a model, but I think it only works well in some rare applications. In their book, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations, Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom look at how decentraliza- tion is changing many organizations. The title metaphor conveys the core concept: Though a starfish and a spider have similar shapes, their internal structure is dramatically different—a decapitated spider inevitably dies, while a starfish can regenerate itself from a single amputated leg. In the same way, decentralized organizations, like the Internet, the Apache Indian tribe, and Alcoholics Anonymous, are made up of many smaller units capable of operating, growing and multiplying independently of each other, making it very difficult for a rival force to control or defeat them (from a review in Publishers Weekly, October 5, 2006). This can make sense in some organizations, but it is my view that few organizations are capable of successfully sustaining this type of existence for very long.

Leaders should lead, not just implement consensus. When no one is in charge, chaos ensues. I firmly believe in the need for a single person to be in charge of each team in an organization, as opposed to a committee. Let’s look at that concept next.

DICTATORS DON’T LEAD TEAMS

The alternative to dictatorship in decision making is team leadership. We have heard a lot about the team concept in the last couple of years. In our own organization, there is a strong movement among our field leadership staff to move toward a team emphasis. If I have heard the word team once from the fresh young recruits I have heard it a thousand times. The desire to work in a team environment goes hand-in-glove with the trend away from hierarchical, top-down organizational styles. Webster’s defines team as “a number of persons associated together in work or activity; a number of persons selected to contend on one side in a match; a group of work- men each completing one of a set of operations.” The word originated from the idea of a group of animals working together, as in two or more horses, oxen, or other draft animals harnessed to the same vehicle or plow. In our day we think of sports teams.

Our family had the joy of living in Chicago during the era of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The Bulls won six world championships under the leadership of Jordan and their coach, Phil Jackson. No one doubts that Jordan was the leader of that team. But even Michael Jordan knows that the Bulls would never have won a championship without the strong support, energy, and talent of Coach Jackson and players like Horace Grant, Scottie Pippen, and John Paxson.

“What makes a good manager?” someone asked Yogi Berra. “A good ball club,” Yogi replied.

I have listened to the cries for teams in our organization. And the move in that direction has been very healthy and productive. We have bro- ken up the pieces of WorldVenture into teams everywhere, and I lead the executive leadership team, which con- sists of two other senior leaders, who report to me, and me. They, in turn, each have their own team to lead. Every leader has his or her team as the organization expands worldwide. There are teams at the home office, and teams out on the field. Though we have pushed most decision making far out to the staff, we still believe that the buck must stop somewhere for each major team, project, initiative, or department. Moving to teams has lib- erated management and harnessed the power of more and more creative energy at every level.

Leadership is teamwork, coaching, creativity—and the synergy of a group of people inspired by their leader. No single person can corner the market on truth. I remember well a frustrating time in my own journey when I was deeply troubled by what I have called the apostolic style of leadership. I shared that story in my introduction. The apostolic style stands at the opposite end of the continuum from the leader who sees his primary role as managing the resources of a team. The apostle sees truth as having come down from on high. The apostle knows the battle plan and where the team will go. It is the team’s responsibility to implement the dreams and visions that were singularly presented to the leader.

That approach may sound spiritual, but I don’t believe it is biblical. The age of the apostles in the New Testament—men like Peter and Paul, who really did receive divine inspiration—is over. A leader’s job today is to work together with his or her team, to draw out ideas and organize them. Unless there is goal ownership, there will never be strong support for the leader. The leader will ultimately have to steer the group into fulfilling the mission, but what that mission is should be determined together by the key players of the team.

In our organization, which we like to think is run as a Christian organization should be run, we rely on the guidance of God. We schedule times of prayer with our leadership team. I think we need to get serious with God if we expect him to get seri- ous with us. We aren’t perfect and don’t always make the right decisions, but we have a history of good, solid organizational performance for many years. We as leaders pray together, play together, and do a lot of talking about the best course of action on any given decision.

DELEGATE DECISIONS WHENEVER POSSIBLE

Rather than always dictating decisions, a good leader will try as often as possible to let those he is leading make decisions. Insisting on being in on all the decisions communicates lack of trust and confidence. It also slows the development of new leadership. Very often, how a project is done doesn’t really matter. If it is done differently but accomplished effectively, then the job gets done, which is all that matters.

I have certainly found this to work in our home. One of the Finzel family rules is “whoever is responsible to do the job can decide how it will be done.” Of course we are interested in seeing the output, and we want to make sure the job is done correctly. But if I am in charge of cooking dinner tonight, then I would like to have the freedom of deciding what we will eat and how I will prepare it. Donna goes nuts if she watches me, so I send her out of the kitchen until dinner is served. It won’t be done the way she does it, but she needs to relax, because I have been delegated that responsibility for the night. Actually, in our family we divide respon- sibilities on a week-by-week basis, according to the responsibilities of and pressures on the various family members during that week. And whoever does the job has the freedom to figure out how it will get done. From time to time my kids volunteer to wash my car. And you have to know that I obsess about having a very clean car inside and out. They don’t wash my car the way I think it should be done, but I have learned to relax and accept their approach. They are saving me six dollars at the gas station! If I watch over their shoulders and constantly correct them, all I do is deflate their confidence.

Try delegating decisions throughout your organization. You will delight your staff. Just recently I had one of my managers come to me with a deci- sion that needed to be made between two different options. He came to me saying, “You’re the boss, and we need a decision.” I could have taken one of two approaches. I could have given him the decision he wanted and he would have walked away and implemented my decision. But I want to empower him. Someday he may need to replace me, so he needs to have decision-mak- ing experience. The more I can push decisions into the various departments, the more ownership and enthusiasm there will be in implementing the deci- sions. So I asked the manager, “This is your area and you are the professional in this area, what is your gut-level opinion about which way we should go?”

His direction was not the way I would have gone, but I decided supporting his decision was more important than me getting my own way, so I told him to go with his intuition and I would back him. He walked away from that brief interchange feeling both valuable and important in this organization. And I walked away a winner, because I soon learned something new: I came to see that he was right and I was wrong!

Harry Truman, in his typical straightforward style, once said, “A leader is a person who has the ability to get others to do what they don’t want to do, and like it.” But we often have the uncomfortable feeling that leaders get us to do things for their own good and not for ours. We actu- ally suspect we are being manipu- lated, but we follow anyway, because our jobs are on the line. Great leaders are those who truly feel that the led are just as important as the leader.

An effective leader in the new paradigm of shared leadership is Max De Pree. He sums up well the ideal of nondictatorial leadership: “Leadership is to be committed to a corporate concept of persons, the diversity of human gifts, covenantal relationships, lavish communications, including everyone, and believing that leadership is a condition of indebt- edness” (Max De Pree, Leadership Is an Art, 72).

FINAL THOUGHTS

How dictators operate:

  1. They hoard decisions.
  2. They view truth and wisdom as primarily their domain.
  3. They restrict decisions to an elite group.
  4. They surprise their workers with edicts from above.

How facilitators lead:

  1. They delegate decisions.
  2. They involve others as much as possible.
  3. They view truth and wisdom as being distributed throughout the organization.
  4. They are developers.
  5. They see people as their greatest resources for ideas that will bring success.
  6. They give their people space to make decisions.
  7. They let those who are responsible decide how jobs will be done.

When the best leader’s work is done, the people will say, “We did it ourselves!”

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