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Autocratic is not a leadership style - if anyone tells you it is, RUN!

I love the Blake-Mouton grid. Its had a few different names over the years and is also commonly known as the Managerial Grid, early in the day when we knew this work as managerial rather than leadership studies. I believe that this document, originally produced in the mid-1960’s, has been the catalyst for a lot of leadership research, theories, styles, and knowledge.

This post has two-parts: in addition to some information on the above, this will cover two of the components that exist along the ”production” axis: laissez-faire and autocratic “leadership” styles. Now, I put leadership in quotes because these two styles do not represent any part of what leadership is.

Autocratic as a leadership style?

I recently saw an Instagram post in which an apparent leadership development professional was promoting four leadership styles, laissez-faire and autocratic being two of the four. I was pretty taken a back that someone would promote these two styles, and it supports my concern that we continue to support and promote an outdated paradigm about what leadership is, and isn't. Lets unpack both part a and part b.

Up until WWII, there was little human input into the overall operational processes. Several years of psychology research in organizations provided researchers with a new field to explore: management. In the 1960s two different studies from two different universities (Ohio State and University of Michigan) produced research with very similar findings: people matter! Thus the Blake-Mouton Grid was produced to demonstrate the power of a relationship-based organization as a means of ensuring high-production.

Up until this point, organizations had only had a heavy reliance on a concern for production. If you look at the low/low section of the grid, you can see that its labeled impoverished, its also referred to as laissez-faire – meaning do nothing. The laissez-faire leader is the one who shows up to work and spends his/her day isolated in their office. They are rarely seen.

As you progress to the right towards a high concern for production, you move into the autocratic aspects. Neither of these approaches are anything close to leadership. Management yes, and not even good management. Neither the laissez-faire nor autocratic approach to production are effective, despite what people have believed for years. You don’t need to look any further than research from Withey and Cooper (1989), which outlined the neglect that team members will introduce if they feel unheard. Years later, Cuddy, Fiske, and Glick (2013) produced research which was based on warmth and competence, a great overlay to the BM Grid, outlining that any personal interactions below the Middle of the Road would likely result in passive or even active sabotage.

Its all about the people

The introduction of the Concern or People or relationship-orientation in organizations was a game-changer in what we understood about the importance of leader-team member exchanges. Most of the participatory models all include some element of a relationship-based approach:

  • Burns’ (1978) and later Bass’ (1985) Transformational Leadership model, by ensuring that team members develop to their fullest potential.

  • Kouzes and Posner, with over 30 years of research and millions of data points include “encourage the heart”

  • ·Later studies of LMX theory: Leadership Making (Graen & Uhl-Bien 1995) includes the need for high-quality exchanges to move to the “partner” phase – necessary for most effective decision making.

No where in any of these models, proven through research, does it mention either laissez-faire or autocratic approach to effectively lead. In fact, Bass goes onto to mention that laissez-faire is not even worthy of consideration for a leadership style.

Theory and application

Not only do we have years of academic/scientific research to back up – we have applied organizational knowledge through years of firms like Gallup that have been measuring Employee Engagement. The most engaged employees have leaders that they take a genuine interest in team members. Listen to their expertise, and value their input.

Of course, we can spend too much time in the concern for people axis, but that’s another post. The key element in all of this is that this degree of organizational frustration simply doesn’t have to exist. The pain, frustration, stress, anxiety that we place on people by using a high-production style carries over into our organizational community, our communities at large, and even into family life. Its simply not necessary nor is it worth the effort or in the best interests of the organization!

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