Autonomy or Autocracy: How Do You Lead?

Autonomy or autocracy. Rules or freedom. Which kind of leadership style works for you? This is not a trick question. While the word “freedom” resonates emotionally with most managers in Western countries, there are good arguments to be made for and against too much employee autonomy at work. Many great leaders swear by the rule book. It avoids confusion, office politics and legal issues. Everybody knows where they are supposed to be, when, doing what. Football coaches in particular  – like  Nick Saban of the national champion college football team at the University of Alabama and Tom Coughlin of the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, swear by their “process” and rule book. My friend Coughlin, when he coached the Jacksonville Jaguars in Florida, wouldn’t let his assistants wear sunglasses on the solar-drenched practice field. Why? It was against the rules, no other reason, and establishing and enforcing rules is key to his leadership style. And it works.

Others are quite the opposite. Back when I was responsible for a large corporate function, I erred on the side of maximum freedom and did OK. “Smart people don’t want to be managed,” was my thinking, and there are many of you who feel the same way. Creativity and rules are oxymoronic, goes this line of reasoning, and many are the leaders who employ this style successfully. The great basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, in his book on leadership, says over-reliance on rules is an abrogation of leadership. And with four national championships on his resume, it is hard to argue.

Another way to consider the different styles of leadership is whether you believe collective efforts deliver the best results, or that top performance is a byproduct of individual excellence. If you support the collectivist approach, rules are essential to maintain group cohesion and monitor compliance (staying “on track” is a more benign way to describe this). If the latter, rules and process management are seen as impediments.

Take this short quiz to see which is your leadership style. Answer “Agree” or “Disagree” to each  question:

1) Everybody has to be “all in” for good things to happen.

2) You can never underestimate the power of teams.

3) Without clearly defined roles and assignments, it’s hard to get things done right.

4) Everyone should share credit equally.

If you answered “Agree” to these questions, you are a rules-based leader. Why? Because collective, total team effort requires clear boundaries that are easily understood and everybody follows. And it’s OK to be a rules-oriented leader! It might not sound New Age and cool, but this is the predominant management style in America today.

Now answer these questions, same rules (no pun intended) as before:

1) If you want a mediocre product, put a team in charge.

2) “Hire the best people and get out of the way” is how to lead.

3) Compensation should be based entirely upon merit.

4) Rules are made to be broken.

No surprise; if you agree with these statements you are a “get-out- the way” sort of leader. Although on the surface this might sound like a kinder, gentler sort of leadership style, it is actually quite Darwinian. Many investment banks and corporate law firms – not exactly cuddly places – encourage this style of leadership.

We won’t resolve this debate here, of course; whether the proper form of governance is an autocratic, rules-based one or a more naturalistic one is as old as history. I have to admit being more in the latter camp, and believe that individual freedom and liberty is an essential element of top performance. In this regard I rely upon, among others, John Stuart Mill and his essay On Liberty (1859), where he asserted the sovereignty of the individual, as opposed to the state, over his own subjective and physical well-being as an essential element of human flourishing. There is a thin line between freedom and anarchy, however, and a society without rules is no society at all. And try to produce anything of value in a business with no rules.

The key is, of course, be yourself. There is no right or wrong way to lead.  I suppose a freedom within a framework approach is best, sort of an Aristotelian Golden Mean, but you have excellent examples throughout history to cite on your behalf regardless of your style.

What works for you? Let us hear from you in the comment section below.