Authoritarian leadership seems to be resurging. The Oxford Review Encyclopedia of Terms gives this definition; “Authoritarian leadership refers to any situation where a leader keeps hold of as much power and authority as possible. Also known as coercive or dictatorial leadership, authoritarian leaders, tend to keep all the decision-making authority to themselves and make the decisions about policies, procedures, tasks, structures, rewards and punishment themselves. The intention behind most authoritarian leaders is to retain control and they usually require unquestioning obedience and compliance…they are task rather than people oriented leaders.”

It feels like the world is at a turning point; will democracy or authoritarianism prevail? Our World in Data shows a dramatic shift toward democracy in the past two centuries. Their chart shows democracy especially accelerated after 1950.

We’ve seen a slight downturn in democracy these last few years. But we should combine the chart’s upward progress since starting at 0 in 1789 combined with Martin Luther King’s statement, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Organization’s Aren’t Democracies, But the Most Effective Foster Exceptional Teamwork

Under autocratic bosses, teamwork is when everyone pulls together to meet the leader’s goals and follow their direction. That’s often what these bosses define as loyalty and being a team player.

My last blog post listed over a dozen ways teams multiply effectiveness well beyond the sum of its members. Team effectiveness is determined by team leadership. As The 18th-century German poet said, “If you would create something you must be something.” Being a strong team leader depends on:

  • Your level of self-confidence. Sharing power and developing others to do what you used to do is almost impossible if you’re insecure. If you draw much of your self-worth from how well others “listen up and follow your command,” you’re going to have a tough time developing a strong team.
  • A new view of your job. A team leader’s job isn’t about being the chief problem-solver. It’s ensuring the right problems are being solved by teams well equipped and supported to solve them.
  • Servant-leadership. Your job is to direct and guide your teams. But you’re also there to serve them. So, what’s your performance gap? How do you know? What’s your personal improvement plan for leveraging your strengths to overshadow your gaps?
  • Strong team leadership skills. A Fortune poll found that “a team player and team leader” was the most important skill CEOs felt an MBA should have. There’s a strong correlation between your skills at facilitating a team discussion, handling conflict, leveraging diversity, keeping a meeting on track, building a team’s effectiveness, etc., and how you leverage the power of teams.
  • An effective senior management team. If you’re a senior manager, make sure your team is a model to the rest of the organization. If you’re not a senior manager and your senior team is not a good example of team effectiveness, don’t let that get in your way. Be a leader. Show them how it’s done.

Pathway and Pitfalls to Leading High-Performance Teams

  • Lead by example. Too often, senior management groups, which are a collection of strong individualists, talk about teamwork — for everyone else. They’re trying to make their organization into something different than they are. This makes their own team and everyone else crazy.
  • Developing team skills and changing team leaders’ and members’ behavior is central to senior management’s critical coaching role. It can’t be delegated. External consultants or internal development professionals can provide invaluable guidance, tools, and training processes, but they can’t own the job of building team skills.
  • A large company held dozens of team rallies all around the company. Over 1,000 improvement suggestions were generated. But since little action was taken, enthusiasm had turned to cynicism. Hundreds of improvement teams were formed with no strategic focus or direction. They spent much of their time strategizing how to get managers on-side and brainstorming how to deal with organization-wide system and process problems. The senior management team turned things around by reforming all the teams into operational and project management teams with clear mandates and measurements.
  • Use the Outstanding Teams Checklist to ensure your teams have all of the direction, guidance, and leadership to succeed. Rather than guessing or projecting your perceptions, practice servant-leadership and ask the teams. Give the checklist to each team member and have them rate the leadership they would like to have on each point compared to what they feel they are currently getting.
  • A sign of teams operating within a fuzzy vision or unfocused strategy is when progress is measured by activities rather than meaningful results. “Measures” like the number of teams formed, projects underway, or people trained cloud the more critical question of whether all this team activity is making any real difference to the organization’s performance.
  • Ensure that every team has clear performance goals and measures. These should:
    • reflect the organization’s strategic imperatives or process management activities
    • be developed and owned by the team with senior management’s guidance
    • provide simple (only the vital few) feedback and learning loops so the team can monitor its own progress and take early self-corrective action
    • originate in customer/partner performance gaps or be aimed at finding new markets, products, services, and filling unmet needs
  • Senior managers must be highly involved in building a team-based culture. That means that they work as hard (or harder) as any team leader or member at building their personal team member and leadership skills.

In Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman and his colleagues write, “In the last few decades much research has proven the superiority of group decision making over that of even the brightest individual in the group. There is one exception to this rule. If the group lacks harmony or the ability to cooperate, decision-making quality and speed suffer. Research at Cambridge University found that even groups comprising brilliant individuals will make bad decisions if the group disintegrates into bickering, interpersonal rivalry, or power plays.”

Authoritarian leaders can delude themselves by forming teams to empower “their people.” But that empowerment is often a coercive manager retaining control through a patronizing adult-child relationship. Empartnerment through highly effective teams isn’t a democracy, but they’re led by managers who believe in participative, respectful partnerships to meet shared goals.