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Because I Said So: The Slow Death of Authoritarian Leadership

November 17, 2011

We’re watching it happen before our very eyes.  From the uprising in the Middle East to the emergence of the Occupy Movement – much of the world is experiencing profound collective introspection. For some it’s a slow bubbling – for others; a fast boil.

Our beliefs, practices, institutions and our leaders – especially our leaders, are undergoing intense scrutiny and criticism. The effects are chaotic and exciting, all at once.

Ever since 1939, when psychologist Kurt Lewin named a style of leadership that has prevailed for time immemorial – authoritarian or autocratic, we’ve watched its slow demise. In the 72 years since Lewin’s research, we’ve studied, analyzed and considered the need and role of authoritarian leadership.

Lewin correctly recognized the limits of authoritarian leadership even in the turbulent period in which he did his work. Imagine opening the daily newspapers of that era, where Mussolini, Hitler, Hirohito and Franco reigned with absolute power.

Lewin, who escaped Hitler’s Germany himself, was remarkable in his understanding of the effect of a leader’s style (behavior) on his “followers.”  The authoritarian leadership style, still the prevalent global leadership style today, is characterized by nearly absolute control in determining direction and making decisions.

The influence and impact of others remain subordinate to the power of the authoritarian leader. This “style” has been so influential in the development of modern management systems that the term for those who work for those leaders still remains – subordinates.

Lewin wisely recognized that authoritarian leadership produced lower levels of participation and creativity. In his three stage theory of change; Lewin believed that the first step required an “unfreezing” of the inertia that resisted change and a dismantling of the mindsets that kept the status quo in place. Lewin thought this phase of change typically resulted in confusion and chaos. We know that the old ways are no longer working and we still haven’t caught sight of the how and what will come. 

The new mindsets are being birthed, but we can’t get to the third stage of completion until we get through those uncomfortable, often arduous first two steps.

 The Beginnings of Leaderless –ness? 

Regardless of your politics or opinions of the two month old Occupy Movement, they can be credited for raising the level of awareness and conversation of critical issues to an international dialogue in an extraordinarily short period.

One of the most confounding and interesting developments of the Occupy Movement has been its embodiment as a leaderless entity. Mirroring its predecessors in the Arab Spring, the Occupy Movement has so far consciously resisted the identification of leaders.

According to Micah Sifry, Editor and Curator of the Personal Democracy Forum, the notion of “leaderless-ness” does not connote a disorganized, uninformed mass, “Political movements can’t be leaderless. The Occupy Movement is, in fact, leader-FULL. That is, the insistent avoidance of traditional top-down leadership and the reliance on face-to-face and peer-to-peer networks and working groups create space for lots of leaders to emerge, but only ones that work as network weavers rather than charismatic bosses.”

The leaderless-ness of the Occupy Movement has been a challenging concept in a culture that promotes leadership styles that model the strongest, loudest and most persistent among us. It’s commitment to giving a voice to the most marginalized and timid among us is both refreshing – and important.

The proliferation of all things Occupy – speaks to the underlying powerless of most people in relation to most institutions.  The Occupy concept is spreading. Occupy Education, Occupy Boardrooms, Occupy Nonprofits, Occupy Museums – even Occupy Hollywood.  The Occupy Movement is awakening values. It’s speaking not just to leaders and institutions whose primary allegiance is to the protection of power, but to systems and practices that are perceived as exclusionary, excessive, imbalanced, unfair and unjust.

Ultimately, the nonhierarchical Occupy Movement focuses us on the question of power – who has it, how it is used and whether it is shared.

Authoritarian Leaders in a Connected, Networked and Social World

Leadership style has a direct causal relationship on the values, culture,  motivation and success of an organization or institution. Classically, authoritarian leaders are not concerned with the will and needs of their “followers.” They lead by methods, with varying degrees of sophistication, of coercion. There’s little shared vision. While in today’s world, they have learned to speak the language of team work, talent, innovation and social purpose, their subjective lens on the world still requires the subjugation of the will and needs of others.

Leaders in a wired world are now exposed in ways that were unimaginable even five years ago. Their actions are inevitably visible, sometimes immediately, especially problematic for them as the demand for transparency becomes more urgent.  In a networked world, authoritarian leaders stand out like totemic figures, who by their very position, become targets.

Micah Sifry’s comments on how technology is changing the political world, can be generalized to the organizational leader, “The notion that a political movement might arise without charismatic leaders is inconceivable. Every previous movement, after all, has had its figureheads. But it’s a vastly different kind of leadership that is emerging. It’s one that is like the networked technology that supports it. Most of us come from a world and a generation that only knows one kind of leadership, the one whose organizational structure looks like a confusing government flowchart.

Everything about our industrial age institutions, trains us to think of leadership as top-down, command-and-control. Give the right answer, get into the right school, get a good job, work your way up the chain of command, win the good life. But today, more and more of us live in a sea of lateral social connections, enabled by personal technology that is allowing everyone to connect and share, in real-time, what matters most to them.”

While today’s authoritarian leaders are inescapably on a collision course with technology, social media and generational demographics, making the transition to more democratic and participative leadership  and systems will not be easy. The models are starkly different. They require radically different mindsets and skills to succeed.

Not known for their empathic skills, authoritarian leaders must literally learn to rewire their neural networks to expand their appreciation and understanding of others.  Studies have found that the higher the degree of preference for social dominance orientation, the lower the activation in the brain centers for pain recognition in others.

Organizations and institutions built on the old hierarchical models will become increasingly difficult to sustain in such a highly competitive, interrelated global environment.  The new model of leadership will require highly conscious mindsets that understand that systems are comprised of whole persons with unique needs and skills.

The signposts are clear. The emerging leader desires partnership, balance and creativity. This leader is not reluctant to share power. This leader is not driven simply by an individualistic vision. This leader understands that real trust and loyalty are not quaint artifacts of bygone days – but real energies to be harnessed for the collective good.

These leaders are committed not only to their own constant evolution – but the evolution of others. Unlike the autocratic leader, these leaders understand that unless we’re in this together, there’s a world of trouble ahead.

So where are we now?  Is it possible to imagine an organization, a world without authoritarian rule? Can we glimpse the possibilities of something new emerging?

I hope so.

 

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

 

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

 

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. November 17, 2011 9:31 am

    Fascinating and very relevant to so many aspects of our lives. Thanks, as always, Louise, for a great post. ~Terry

    • November 17, 2011 11:19 am

      Terry,
      Much appreciated. If we believe that leaders relfect and directly influence our culture, then the continued prevalence of the authoritarian leader is very relevant for all aspects of our lives. One reason I wrote the post was because I think we are in the midst of huge societal change that has finally started to question that relevance – and its implications.
      Thanks always for your support,
      Louise

  2. November 17, 2011 7:58 pm

    Louise, another excellent read. As I read, a number of leaders with whom I am personally acquainted came to mind, sadly not because they are in the vanguard of a new kind of leadership, but because they are becoming daily more irrelevant to those they lead and I see this happening before my eyes. Naturally, in response, they are reacting, i.e. becoming more reactionary, and attempting to put more command and control in place. This, despite them being cognisant of networks and influence. I think the promised land of which you speak is definitely within sight. More and more people are coming to truly understand what a ‘network’ is and that organisations and systems are leader-full places. They see themselves as nodes in the network rather than links in an increasingly irrelevant chain of command.

    Also, very glad that you highlight the fact that neural networks can be rewired. They can indeed. One of my coaches insists I stop telling people that this is what I do in my work as it is slightly in-credible, but it is the case that we are more plastic than traditionally thought. This message of hope needs to get out there and we need to stop trying to ‘train’ leaders, instead I feel we need to develop them and to use a new set of learning technologies to achieve this deep learning.

    Go well
    John

    • November 18, 2011 10:20 am

      John, I appreciate your comments nearly as much as your excellent blog posts! I understand the tide you are swimming against, I experience it too. I continue to be amazed by the aggressive cultures I encounter in my work. Domineering and controlling behaviors are so embedded in our institutions and workplaces that many people don’t even recognize it. The “strategies” most autocratic leaders have to address their needs are slowly starting to fail, as people become more disillusioned and the egalitarian spirit spreads. I expect push-back when those limited strategies fail. That is why it is so important to provide a greater range of tools to facilitate greater emotional choice.

      As for changing our neural wiring, as an amateur neuroscience geek, I think we’re just glimpsing the possibilties. The research alone on mindfulness is opening up new vistas http://psychcentral.com/news/2011/01/24/brain-structure-changes-after-meditation/22859.html. I was on a teleconference call the other day with author David Rock, who has focused a great deal on working with coaches to integrate neuroscience principles. His book, Your Brain at Work, and others that have followed have been instrumental in reshaping our work. I believe that giving people the tools to understand their own operating systems is essential.

      And isn’t the concept of leader-full organizations great? It’s indeed wonderful to keep the promised land in mind. (got to be some valuable neural rewiring benefits there, don’t you think?)

      Keep up the inspiring work,
      Louise

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