Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

The case of the red-faced autocratic leader

Posted by A Friend on 9 February 2009

Headless Dictator This is the third of a three-part series where we present short cases of spur of the moment statements made that led to unfavorable results taken from our own practice. The underlying theme of the series is some thoughts are just not meant to be spoken, even if these were true.

Jordan joined a global consultancy as the new managing director in one of the company’s developing country offices. Jordan was in the military for a few years before finding success as a business executive, so his management and leadership style has a strong military influence. He is very authoritative, straight to the point, and results driven. He is also brash and abrupt; and in a behavioral test done as part of one of the company’s team building activities, he scored zero for empathy.

Jordan very quickly established himself as a strong organizational leader who sets the pace and dictates directions, and he gave his employees very little scope to exercise their own creativity and initiative. This is a practice more common in some military organizations; and this management approach is also typical of many developing country companies, especially in Asia.

But while it’s true that Jordan was managing a developing country office, most of his employees were high achieving professionals, with a number of them experienced at C-level advisory consulting. His controlling behavior made some of his junior consultants feel inadequate, but the more senior ones who rightly believed they were much too experienced to just follow his directives just felt resentful.

Within six months of taking office, Jordan started seeing some of his consultants leave. In one case, Christina, a mid-level consultant who had been very vocal about her disgruntlement with new management, filed her resignation. In the exit interview, Jordan asked Christina what her plans for the future were. Christina coyly responded that she might try applying for consulting positions overseas.

Jordan haughtily responded: “To be honest, I don’t think any of the consultants in this practice are qualified to work overseas.” This shocked Christina, so she honestly replied: “Actually Jordan, I already have an offer to work in our London office.” After which she stormed off, leaving the red faced Jordan pondering how such could have happened without him getting an inkling of it.

Needless to say, the story of the exit interview spread like wildfire to the rest of the organization. And Christina was not the last person to leave, nor was she the last to find an overseas assignment.

Jordan’s management style is in itself an interesting case study on autocratic leadership (Mindtools has a good overview of common leadership styles). We suspect that it was especially hard for him to not take a parting shot at Christina, just to further stamp his authority. But just as autocratic leadership has generally gone out of favor, Jordan’s cynical attempt to disparage for no clear reason spectacularly backfired.

– o –

Blog Carnival. The February Leadership Development Carnival is on at Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership blog, and it’s worth a visit or three. Over 30 articles from some of the best blogs on leadership and management are featured, including one we wrote on personal responsibility. This is our first time to send a submission to a blog carnival, so we are pleased to have been included.

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2 Responses to “The case of the red-faced autocratic leader”

  1. A Friend –
    thanks for the mention!

  2. Topher said

    Interesting thoughts, a little bit deeper than I have been used to, lol
    nice layout on your blog.

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