Leadership: Is it Better to be Authoritative or Compassionate?


“The most dangerous leadership myth is that leaders are born—that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That’s nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” ~ Warren Bennis

In business and politics, we are at a low point in history. The old promise of hope parents made to their children of anyone being able to grow up to become president is more of a threat used to frighten kids these days. Confusion reigns throughout the world. Leaders are targets of suspicion and hatred and it appears, at least on the surface, that there is no one person who is able to lift us out of our dark hoes and into the sun. Why is this, in a world filled with historical figures who led so many in dire times and spoke words of wisdom that have lived on through books and the internet, inspiring all who read them?

“The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.” ~ Jim Rohn

There are few leaders in our present day world who people admire and so many who are reviled. Why is that, and more so, how did those who are not respected climb into positions of authority, steering the lives and futures of so many people? Within that leadership, most people see there are two ends of the leadership spectrum—being authoritative and being compassionate, but are the two really separate?

When interviewing for another management position, I was asked which of the two methods I employed for leading a team. “Both,” I replied.

The interviewer confessed confusion. How could I use both. People either needed to know I was the one in charge or I was their friend, but couldn’t possibly be both. Actually, as Mr. Rohn put forth in his quote, both go hand in hand when leading people and getting the best results. There must be an understanding that a certain discipline must be maintained over a collection of workers to attain a common goal, but those workers are also human and have day-to-day needs that life throws in front of them.

When the question came up about managing a team in a crutch situation (this is when someone in upper management screws up and the workers must squeeze a month’s worth of work into three days to meet a deadline) and how I would handle it, I related several situations of this challenge and stated that I was the first one to roll up my sleeves and work hard. “In the trenches with everyone else” I called it. In my experience, when workers saw I was struggling just as hard or harder than they were required to do, they not only joined in willingly but they respected my authority later on.

“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.” ~ Theodore Roosevelt

I also had one major rule for my subordinates: I would be flexible with their working hours as long as they met their deadlines and workloads. Most worked well under this hands-off policy. a small few over the years needed to be let go because they either couldn’t function without constant supervision or just took advantage of the freedom. In an age of possible telecommuting for 80% of the workforce, most companies do not practice it due to the fear of workers falling behind with such freedom.

“You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.” ~ Ken Kesey

This all made sense to me as it functioned well throughout my career in a management position but I didn’t get this particular position. The feeling I got from my interviewer was that the equality and compassion ploy was not how they wanted management to relate to the workers. It was also evident from the faces of the workers I passed in the hallways coming to and leaving my interview. Employee engagement was low and since then, I have heard about massive layoffs due to lost revenue. Engagement and success go hand-in-hand, according to many business experts.

“You don’t lead by hitting people over the head—that’s assault, not leadership.” ~ Dwight D. Eisenhower

At one management position I had, when I first started, my superior sat me down to explain how the corporation wanted employee reviews handled. “You have to include something the employees can never achieve,” he said. “That way, we can fire them for not achieving something if need be.”

ALSO READ:  Introduction to Web Hosting Affiliate Programs

This was my first corporate management position and I was shocked that this was their method of keeping employees off balance on the mere chance they might need to be fired at some point in their career. Surely the employee would resent such a negative point on reviews and see the transparency of why. When I worked a non-management position for another corporation and received the same treatment in my first review, I argued the point, presented evidence to the contrary and was exasperated when my manager just smiled, shrugged and insisted I had to sign the review “to show I had seen it, not to acknowledge I agreed with it.”

That, it seems, affected employee engagement throughout the company, which now struggles to encourage employee innovation while layoffs continue. Still, no one seems to have figured it out to reverse the slide into bankruptcy. Often stubbornness and the refusal to admit wrongdoing is the downfall of authoritative leadership. With compassionate leadership, human foibles and the ability to admit defeat and rebuild is viewed as a positive trait.

“A competent leader can get efficient service from poor troops, while on the contrary an incapable leader can demoralize the best of troops.” ~ John J. Pershing

Authoritative leadership is also referred to as autocratic leadership and that spells out certain problems with employee engagement. It is also considered the most misused form of leadership and one that is enacted by those in management with no leadership skills.

A common belief of many authoritarian leaders is that followers require direct supervision at all times or else they would not operate effectively. This belief is in accordance with one of Douglas McGregor’s philosophical views of humankind, Theory X. This theory proposes that it is a leaders role to coerce and control followers, because people have an inherent aversion for work and will abstain from it whenever possible. Theory X also postulates that people must be compelled through force, intimidation or authority, and controlled, directed, or threatened with punishment in order to get them to accomplish the organizational needs. In the minds of authoritarian leaders, people who are left to work autonomously will ultimately be unproductive. “Examples of authoritarian communicative behavior include a police officer directing traffic, a teacher ordering a student to do his or her assignment, and a supervisor instructing a subordinate to clean a workstation.”

Communication Patterns of Authoritarian Leadership:

  • Downward, one-way communication (i.e. leaders to followers, or supervisors to subordinates)
  • Controls discussion with followers
  • Dominates interaction
  • Independently/unilaterally sets policy and procedures
  • Individually directs the completion of tasks
  • Does not offer constant feedback
  • Rewards acquiescent obedient behavior and punishes erroneous actions
  • Poor listener
  • Uses conflict for individual gain
ALSO READ:  Business Mentoring is the Future!

Effects of Authoritarian Leadership Communication Styles:

  • Increase in productivity when leader is present
  • Produces more accurate solutions when leader is knowledgeable
  • Is more positively accepted in larger groups
  • Enhances performance on simple tasks and decreases performance on complex tasks
  • Increases aggression levels among followers
  • Increases turnover rates

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” ~ John Quincy Adams

Compassionate leadership is a fairly new concept in business. According to author, Ray B. Williams, in his article for Psychology Today, Why We Need Kind and Compassionate Leaders:

Leaders in business schools, organizations and in politics are taught to lead with their heads and not with their hearts. Leaders are expected to be strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line business people who focus on results. Yet, recent research on successful leaders and the current turbulent economic and social times calls out for a different style of leader—one that exhibits kindness, compassion and empathy.

Driving, directive, coercive styles of leadership may move people and get results in the short-term, but the dissonance it creates is associated with toxic relationships and emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear.

The article spotlights some surprising assertions about Steve Jobs as being slightly to the right of being an autocratic leader but no one can deny the success of Apple. Robert Sutton, a management professor at Stanford University, examined the behavior of abusive bosses, published in his book, The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. In his research he ran across many examples of Silicon Valley and high-tech leaders who extolled the virtues of Jobs’ abusive behavior as being necessary to build a successful company. Sutton contended, “it is troubling that there’s this notion in our culture that if you’re a winner, it’s okay to be an asshole.”

ALSO READ:  Learn about Web Hosting with its Offers

Sutton argues that despite Jobs’ and Apple’s success, his research shows that abusive bosses are bad for the bottom line, and there are far more successful companies—such as Google, Virgin Atlantic, Procter & Gamble and Southwest Airlines, for example—that are not led by abusive bosses.

Sure, Apple has had some products that were not successful and consumers air their displeasure at buying iPhones that become obsolete by the time they get home and open the package, but the fact is, around the world, companies struggle to regain success and profit. It’s not the technology available to manufacture products nor the ability to market them, but the question of employee engagement, loyalty and the long-missing ideal that the company gets 110% from employees who feel a part of a family within their employment.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” ~ Bill Gates

Williams includes plenty of statistics in his article:

A startling 37% of American workers—roughly 54 million people—have been bullied at work according to a 2007 survey by the Workplace Bullying Institute. The consequences of such bullying have spread to families, and other institutions and cost organizations reduced creativity, low morale and increased turnover. According to the Institute, 40% of the targets of bulling never told their employers, and of those that did, 62% reported that they were ignored. According to a 2007 survey by Zogby International, almost 50% of the U.S. workers report they have experience or witnessed some kind of bullying—verbal abuse, insults, threats, screaming, sarcasm or ostracism. One study by John Medina showed that workers stressed by bullying performed 50% worse on cognitive tests. Other studies estimate the financial costs of bullying at more than $200 billion per year.

In his article “Why Kindness Should Be A Required Leadership Characteristic,” in the National Post, he said, “so-called “soft-skills” or traits, such as kindness and compassion in leaders have often been seen as weaknesses.” In reality they are strengths.

Kindness is not the same as likeability. Rather, kindness implies an interpersonal closeness that comes with responsibility, vulnerability and an absence of self-interest. There is more than adequate evidence now that leaders who practice kindness, and where kindness is valued at work, create workplaces that people want to work in and are also very productive.

All I know in my experience with some of the largest corporations in the world, is that ruling by fear is rampant and it hasn’t been working during these tough economic times. Perhaps the most apt quote on the problem is one by Fuchan Yuan:

“There are three essentials to leadership: humility, clarity and courage.”

Boiled down to its essence, these three traits will do any leader well, while being admired by those he/she leads.

Image: Liberty Leading the People (1830) by Eugène Delacroix


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes:

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>

9 thoughts on “Leadership: Is it Better to be Authoritative or Compassionate?