Build or burn?

The secret to management – benign dictatorship

‘Abel, your fired. Out’.  With those words, interrupting his own employee meeting, Tim Armstrong, CEO of Patch, AOL’s local news subsidiary, fired his creative director, with hundreds of other employees listening in by conference call.  Here’s a man who’s learned one half of benign dictatorship, the secret of management, without learning the other half.  It only works in combination.

This brutal incident was recorded during a staff meeting to announce large scale job cut-backs and Mr Armstrong took the opportunity to lay down rules.  If people thought the situation was a joke, if they wanted to fool around, they should leave Patch today.  If they didn’t use the company’s product themselves, they should leave also.  He said if people wanted someone to blame for what was happening, they should blame him.  And he said if people thought that leaking what was going on inside Patch would make him alter his course, they were wrong.  The overall tone is ‘I’m a tough-minded, serious leader’, with a threatening undercurrent.  At this point, the doomed Abel takes a photograph.

The audio recording is fascinating, not only for the bizarre sacking, but because of the insight it gives into a certain type of manager.  Look, management is difficult.  Your employees are not always up to the mark.  Business is competitive and in a fight for survival big changes have to be made.  This is hard going for everyone, but the leader is the person responsible.  It calls for tough-minded, serious people.  It needs dictators.

Being tough-minded and serious all day, every day is exhausting.  That path leads you to the door of people like Tim Armstrong: the sort of unpredictable, inconsistent, bullying behaviour of genuine dictators.  You end up managing by fear.  It’s a leadership strategy, but not one likely to achieve success in the long-term.  The solution is benign dictatorship.  It’s a management style that blends the tough minded and serious, with self-awareness.

Of what should you be aware?

Firstly, that working in organisations is a slightly unreal situation, not unlike being with your family on Christmas Day: you get on, you have a lot of experiences in common, but too long in each other’s company and you want to kill each other.  The effect is slightly ludicrous and quite funny, but it’s your livelihood so it tends to be taken too seriously.  Don’t be afraid to poke fun at it, and yourself.

Secondly, you can’t do it all on your own.  No matter how competent you are, eventually you will drain your batteries and need help.  Build a support network of people you like, can share a joke with, who’s opinions you respect, and with whom you can develop alliances.  They can be employees, colleagues or bosses.  It needn’t be a large group or become a clique.

Lastly, get out more.  While in character, don’t forget there are some things on which you can make concessions (see my Comfy Chair Hypothesis of change management).  You can afford to let the little things slide or give people a third chance.  It won’t make you fatally weak.  Have a heart.

If a recording of my earliest staff announcements had been made and leaked on the internet, it would have made amusing listening.  All ‘Hey, guys!  I’ve just had this really great idea’ to a bunch of arms-folded people who didn’t much enjoy their work or like their colleagues.  You’d listen to all the touchy-feely stuff and think, ‘He’s not going to get far with that plan’.  ‘Benign’ without ‘dictatorship’ doesn’t get you very far.

I had a colleague who had a reputation as a hard man.  He was certainly assertive but was also great fun to work with.  When I suggested to him he wasn’t as fierce as his reputation, he explained this reputation could be traced back to a single spectacular confrontation many years earlier and ever since then he’d found that people, knowing about this incident, were generally less inclined to go up against him.  Consequently, he could afford to be easy-going and affable most of the time.  His name was Fred Trussell and he is my role model for Benign Dictatorship.

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