Is an autocratic boss a bad thing?

KAMAL KARANTH | Updated on July 04, 2018 Published on July 04, 2018

Indira Gandhi   -  THE HINDU

Narendra Modi   -  THE HINDU

The ability of CEOs to make tough calls and avoid feel-good short-term decisions often decides their legacies, though it may cost them friends

The last week or so has been rife with discussions on the 1975 Emergency. The comparison between former prime minister Indira Gandhi and the current PM Narendra Modi and their leadership styles continues. World over political leaders and corporate CEOs have faced the enormous pressure of staying popular and leaving behind a worthy legacy. Think about Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Russi Mody. Today, they are remembered more for their strong legacy than a few acts that may have antagonised people then.

The dilemma

The boards want a CEO who drives results. The employees want a leader who offers them freebies, who poses for selfies. The world wants better human beings. In real life, we praise people who can give, who are compassionate and also humble. When it comes to leaders around us we also want to see articulate, charismatic, connecting personalities. Somehow, though, not all of these attributes can be found together in one single leader. Furthermore, in the long run, we will only remember the lasting impact of the CEO rather than the feel-good factors. It’s no secret that the ultimate impact would be measured in financial results. So what are the characteristics which make the authoritarian leaders successful?

Result orientation

Our new global CXO had just taken charge. Her visit to Asia started with a captivating town hall speech to the employees. Later, when I met her one to one she asked me to reverse one of my recent big decisions. It was a key decision and was going to catch the attention of people if I withdrew it. With a gun to my head I swallowed my pride and agreed. Later, I reached out to my peers in other countries and said, “The devil is here”. They weren’t surprised as by then they had already been meted out the same treatment.

Over the next two years, she took many such decisions which were neither consensus-driven nor popular with her CXO reportees. But the results started to show. The leaders who couldn’t align either performed or quit. She transformed the results like never before. The board was happy, so were many more front-line employees who had started to earn incentives. Her communication with front-line staff was steady and inspiring. The only people who loathed her were those reporting directly to her as she was ruthless about execution and results. She wasn’t the kind of CEO who took you to exotic offsites, private dinners or sent personal gifts. But neither could you complain when your name was regularly in the performers’ list.


We tend to loathe leaders whom we claim are narcissists. But, strong leaders who need to stand the test of time and make tough calls will have traces of narcissism. It comes as a package. Leaders whom you hail as great decision-makers are likely to get a few of them wrong. Their narcissism prevents them from brooding over their mistakes. Decision-making is a key asset of great leaders. If that’s compromised because they want to be popular or want safer bets, their role is considerably weakened. Organisations which have tougher mandates need to consider leaders with traces of narcissism for a quicker turnaround. Yes, it’s a double-edged sword, but still better than a leader who needs hand-holding and prodding to make decisions. The board’s ability to impose checks and balances on abuse of power is critical when you have autocratic leaders.

The last-mile connect

One of the key ingredients of success for autocratic leaders is their last-mile connectivity. The CEO’s ability to have the magic touch with their customers or connect with front-line employees cannot be ignored. Many of them keep a direct involvement with this crucial interface. Otherwise, they will be trapped by sycophants who might not give a real picture of the ground reality. Social media has made this connect easier for CEOs. The lifeline for any authoritarian leader is their ability to marshal their front-line employees. Most likely their narcissism affects only their immediate reportees. So, the little time they spend with the front-line staff, they are smart to ensure they are charming and inspiring. They can change to suit the context.

Every organisation that has gone through restructuring, an acquisition-based growth strategy or a very ambitious growth plans needs autocratic leaders. The danger is in how long they would be run in that manner and its impact on long-term culture. In the short run, such leaders definitely give results and reduce the anxiety of investors.

Having said that, when you look at how Mahathir Mohamad and Lee Kuan Yew transformed countries, how Imran Khan created a winning cricket team and what a GE or Apple became you will wonder if autocratic leadership is bad at all.

Kamal Karanth is co-founder of Xpheno, a specialist staffing firm

Published on July 04, 2018
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