Weak Leadership Often Results from This Frequent Mistake

Author: Bryan Ritchie


It’s rare to find the leader that doesn’t know or doesn’t believe they should know what his or her organization’s strategy should be. They see their job as determining the strategy and then communicating effectively this strategy to all of the members of the organization so they can implement that strategy. You might think of this model as the “dictatorial” strategy formation/“democratic” implementation approach. The problem is that in an increasingly complex world, this leadership approach fails more often than it succeeds. Great leadership is increasingly reversing this approach: “democratic” strategy formation/“dictatorial” implementation.

Why is the model changing? First, strategy formation is increasingly difficult and complex, often extending beyond the expertise or even perspective of one or a small group of people. Some are going so far as to call strategy formation a “wicked” problem, with few or very complex solutions. Second, assuming teams can or will successfully implement a strategy, no matter how clear or straightforward the strategy may be, can lead to tremendous disappointment!

Relying on either characteristics of the dictator leader or tasks of the democratic implementation leads to weak leadership and sub-par results over time. When a company relies on episodic, charismatic leadership, positive change only lasts as long as that leader. And while change isn’t always better, better always requires change. So continuity in that change requires consistency of leadership. On the other hand, when a company relies only on process and management, it often fails to innovate and stay on top of its market, eventually giving way to more nimble competitors.

There are numerous examples of each kind of organization. I was part of a university that exhibited tremendous turnaround and gains under an inspired and charismatic leader. But soon after that leader left for another university, most of the gains were quickly lost. Other organizations, think of Kodak, K-Mart, Sears, Studebaker, and others, lose their way over time as they get mired in the management of existing practices and perspectives.

So is there a solution to this problem of weak or unsustained leadership? At the risk of oversimplifying, the answer is yes. Although this yes is itself somewhat complicated, so bear with me. In a phrase, strong leadership can be summed up as “Democratic Input, Dictatorial Execution.”[1] What do I mean by this? It is accessing all of the collective knowledge and insight of your organization to create the best strategy possible and then maniacally and mercilessly executing against that strategy until it either succeeds, or proves itself unworthy. If the latter, and this is the complexity part, then the process must be opened back up again to understand how the strategy must be changed in order to be successful.

There are at least two incredibly important insights that come from democratic input and dictatorial execution. First, if the strategy is not executed at the highest possible level, it is not possible to know whether the strategy is any good! Just because an organization doesn’t win with the strategy they’ve chosen doesn’t mean the strategy isn’t any good. It could be it just wasn’t executed well. The reverse is not also true. Just because a strategy is good doesn’t mean it will be executed well. Second, in an increasingly complex and technological world, great strategy requires the input of many smart people. Consider the strategy IKEA has employed successfully. European design, medium quality, lower price, flat-ship containers, warehouse shopping, self-delivery, and so forth. Forming this strategy is complex and requires the inputs and collaboration of multiple people and departments to create and execute.

As noted above, many organizations get this solution to weak leadership backwards, which itself is the cause of weak leadership! They have dictatorial input and democratic execution. In this case, “god complex” leaders decide on strategies and then turn it over to others to figure out and implement. The problem is that no one ever knows anything for sure: whether the strategies were any good or whether the execution was done well! This problem leads to strategic churn, where a new strategy is dictatorially disseminated from on high every year, with repeatedly bad implementation outcomes. By flipping the democracy and the dictatorship to the appropriate order, it is possible to finally know for sure whether the organization’s strategy is any good. How amazing would it be to work for an organization that knew whether what it was doing was the right thing?

[1] Richard Notebaert used this phrase at a graduation event at Notre Dame on May 19, 2017.