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Do We Prefer Leaders Who Are More Like Dictators?

Most leadership books will tell you a democratic, all-inclusive leadership style is best -- here's why they could be wrong.

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What do Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew have in common? If you're thinking they each created a better future through their remarkable leadership in business and society, you would be correct. If you're also thinking their leadership style was more autocratic than democratic, that would be correct too.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

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What? Autocratic leadership creates a better future? Could it really be true? As I reflected a bit more, almost all leaders I could think of who had changed the course of history, were indeed autocratic. But, if you pick up any assortment of books on leadership, chances are most will sing the virtues of a democratic, all-inclusive leadership style. The contrast between my own observations and the vast array of leadership literature confused me. I decided to dig deeper.

For my recently published book Open Source Leadership (McGraw-Hill 2017), my colleagues and I designed a survey that asked 16,000 executives in 28 countries what they thought. One of the questions required respondents to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: In order to drive unprecedented success for the organization in today's fast paced environment, a significant amount of top-down leadership is required.

Without exception, an overwhelming majority of respondents in each of our 28 countries agreed or strongly agreed.

What does the data imply? Should we now stop overglorifying democratic leadership? Some of the most powerful dictators of the past century have also been successful leaders. And Vivek Wadhwa, director of research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering, argues in this article that the in the world are run by "enlightened dictators."

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Does it mean we can now justify dictatorial, autocratic or top-down leadership? Not so fast. In today's social media-enabled age, ordinary people are more empowered than ever before. Leaders, on the other hand, are totally exposed, even naked. The 2011 Arab Spring is a stunning reminder of the fact that using position power and force to control people is not even an option any more. And the 2016 U.S. presidential election is perhaps the best recent proof of the fact that leaders are completely exposed and naked today. So, even though history and our data show that you need to be autocratic to drive breakthrough success, you cannot forge ahead recklessly, because the empowered workforce of today won't let you. This, in effect, is the 21st-century leadership dilemma.

So, what's the way forward? Benevolent autocracy! Try incorporating the following authentic practices in your leadership behavior:

1. People must have no doubt in their minds about who you are and what you stand for. Only if you build a solid reputation of being a better future creator using the right values, will you earn the trust and respect of your people. So, showcase your values with your actions rather than with your words, and make clear (again and again) what your purpose is.

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2. Being a benevolent autocrat is not easy in the open source era. Since every word and action of a leader is in full and open view these days, she needs to be autocratic about her values and purpose, and at the same time, be humble and respectful with people. It is a delicate dance of seemingly opposing ideas, but she must master it.

3. Allow people to make values based decisions, and not box them into bureaucratic rules and policies. As long as people earnestly pursue the common purpose of the organization while living the values, they ought to be free to make whatever decisions they think are required. Imagine if United Airlines had followed company values instead of company procedure during the recent incident of physically dragging a passenger out of the aircraft. Would they still have dragged Dr. Dao out the way they did?

4. The work of leadership is intricate. On the one hand leaders need to be autocratic about their values, purpose, and vision. On the other hand, the speed of change renders a lot of ideas and concepts obsolete in no time. Given the backdrop, leaders today must listen, learn, empathize, and reflect regularly to ensure that their values and purpose are still relevant. As everything is getting automated, will be a core leadership skill in the open source era. It is one of the things computers and robots will not be able to do anytime soon, and will therefore be at a premium.

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5. In the age of speed, innovating quickly and more frequently is key. If the leader is not forgiving, no one will take . If no one takes risk, there will be no innovation. So, leaders today need to celebrate failure as much as success. Develop a private equity investor's mindset. Try investing in multiple initiatives fully expecting most them to fail. Even if one turns out to be a major breakthrough, it ought to be enough. So, build a of forgiveness.

The above tips will enable leaders to earn the right to be autocratic -- and this right must be re-earned every day -- business and societal leaders can better navigate the challenging yet exiting times we find ourselves in today. Benevolent autocracy is perhaps the only way to solve the 21st-century leadership dilemma.

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