The time of the autocrat is over

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Derek Park

What does it mean to be a leader? Could it not be argued that management is just a case of knowing more than everyone else and using staff as a tool to apply and exploit that superior knowledge? History has often admired and applauded the autocratic style of management but have there been that many successful autocrats?

A search for a list turned up Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte and Adolf Hitler. They certainly had a degree of success in their chosen endeavours but hardly provide good role models for the way we manage our business. There is no doubt that there are autocratic leaders in our industry but is there sometimes a time and a place for the autocratic style?

After the Sea Gem tragedy in 1965 it was recommended that there should be ‘an unquestioned authority on these rigs’. The notion that ‘somebody should be in charge’ led to the creation of the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) and the regulations with which we are now so familiar. It is perhaps ironic that our industry, with its no nonsense tough guy image, was found to be lacking decisive management all those years ago. Since then in any emergency response situation, command and control with a well trained person clearly in charge, has quite rightly been the order of the day.

In my opinion, there is one other time where autocracy is appropriate. This is in the area of the so called ‘no brainers’ or things we all recognise just have to be done. It can be frustrating when trying to make change to be bogged down by ‘due diligence’ and inaction when the appropriate action is obvious to all.

In reality, these are the exceptions that prove the rule that in most cases an autocratic style of management is inappropriate and wasteful. It is just not enough for a manager to assume a formidable and overbearing attitude. Managers must inspire.

The most common and damaging failure of the autocratic manager lies simply in their unwillingness to listen. They see no value in the contributions from staff, relying entirely on their own opinion and perception when taking decisions. If reality does intrude then the truth is massaged and spun to fit with their preconceptions. Achievements are talked up to meet targets but in reality the expectations are low and business performance falls way short of true potential. Staff feel stifled and that there is no point in doing anything other than turn up and do as they are told. This neglect of their potential results in a massive and avoidable loss to the operation. The manager may feel in control of the people but he will not be in control of the business!

Some managers feel that their job really is to make things as difficult as possible for their staff. Borrowing the philosophy of a First World War general they believe that there is ‘no gain without pain’. Easily achievable and elegant solutions are discarded as soft options and staff are nailed to the wall for missing some other largely irrelevant target.

Managers can be suspicious and critical of those who seem to do their job easily. They not only miss out on the opportunities which could be created by having staff do more, but could even encourage staff in turn to create meaningless and wasteful activity as cover, adding more layers of cost and waste to the business.

In extreme cases we see leaders who consider that they are doing a good job as long as there is someone else to blame. For examples of this watch any politician on the TV news tonight; in industry it is usually staff and contractors in the firing line!

All management regimes, good and bad, are self reinforcing and by its very nature command and control is more entrenched than most. As an OIM I was occasionally shocked by what I came to call ‘the power of the chair’. Some staff were willing to carry out an instruction because it came from the top even if they knew it to be wrong. That was really scary and it becomes even scarier if an unscrupulous member of the workforce sees an opportunity to maliciously exploit the situation.

An operation doesn’t have to be that complex before it becomes impossible for the person at the top to be ‘the expert’ in all aspects. Good managers, especially those involved in hazardous operations, will be open with staff about their own lack of detailed knowledge and will welcome the ‘hang on a minute, boss’ response from those better informed.

True leadership is about more than just directing people. A manager has to inspire staff to work to their full potential. Earlier we looked at some of history’s autocrats so let’s look at an example of someone inspirational, Winston Churchill. Most people know that in reference to the wartime population he famously said ‘This was their finest hour!’ What is not always realised is that he wasn’t speaking in 1945 and reflecting on a war just won; he was speaking in 1940 and in the context of what lay ahead. The full text is:

Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth lasts for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was their finest hour!

The key element is that it in just a few words he beseeches millions of people to act in a way that will deliver ‘their finest hour’. Churchill was a strong and at times autocratic leader but he knew more than anyone that he couldn’t win the war on his own. What made him great was his ability to inspire those who knew what was needed to go ahead and do it.

Douglas McGregor’s XY Theory shows that most people are not naturally lazy and in fact want to work. In a nutshell McGregor says that people respond better to an ‘adult’ approach (Theory Y) which fosters co-operation amongst themselves and management rather than being simply told what to do in a command and control regime (Theory X).

We run workshops for operational and management teams where we sometimes force people to work, just for an hour or so, in a simulated but rigorous command and control regime. Not surprisingly people soon become demotivated, argumentative, resigned, disinterested, poor communicators and genuinely unhappy, even in a role play situation. It has been said that success makes happy people but perhaps it is the other way round?

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too harsh on individuals because often our managers have not been trained to really manage. It is not that rare to find senior managers who prior to their appointment have had little experience of leading staff, especially those in the frontline. Demonstrating the effects of an autocratic regime is relatively easy; having some leaders see it within and begin to change is sometimes more of a challenge!



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