The Authoritarian Leader

Most of the leaders in the previous post rely on a leadership style referred to as ‘authoritarianism’. This is one of the oldest leadership styles and has its roots in the feudal system where lords held absolute authority over their servants and those servants were expected to know their place and do their master’s bidding without question.

Unfortunately, this leadership style, in which the leader rules with a rod of iron and refuses to accept any advice from subordinates, has its drawbacks: On the 2nd of November 1707 Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell was returning with his fleet from a short sojourn in Toulon. As the fleet approached the English Channel the navigator was unsure of their exact position, the weather was worsening but rather than heave-to the Admiral insisted on carrying on.

Legend has it that a sailor, a native of the Scilly Islands, recognised roughly where they were and went to inform the Admiral. Discipline in the Royal Navy at this time was brutal and famed for his ultra-authoritarian attitude Shovell had the man summarily hanged from the yard-arm for daring to question an officer. Sometime later, the fleet ran into the Scilly Islands with the loss of 4 ships and nearly 2000 men.

It still remains one of the worst disasters in the history of the Royal Navy. Surely the Royal Navy would learn from this and encourage its sailors to speak up to prevent disasters…On 22nd June 1893 Admiral Sir George Tryon was the commander of the Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet. Admiral Tryon had a reputation for being a very brusque and dictatorial man and he had arranged his fleet into two columns with the ships in each column steaming in line astern with the columns some 6 cables apart (about 3,600 feet).

Tryon gave the order to reverse course and execute a turn inwards towards the centre of the two columns. Prior to doing this it might have been a good idea to ensure that the distance between the two columns was greater than twice the turning radius of the ships – it wasn’t and Tryon’s flagship, HMS Victoria, collided with the ship of his second in command, Rear Admiral Sir Albert Markham, HMS Camperdown, and sank with the loss of 358 sailors.

The bizarre thing is that even though many of the crews of both ships knew that the manoeuvre wouldn’t work nobody dared speak up, but all watched as the inevitable disaster unfolded. So, surely now people learned the lesson…It is reported that the captain of RMS Titanic overruled his officers who wanted to proceed slowly due to the fog in order to give themselves a fighting chance of avoiding a collision if the lookouts spotted something.

Captain Smith had a reputation as an authoritarian. Similar situations used to occur in the aviation world. In the 1970s airline captains were famously authoritarian and co-pilots were supposed to sit there and simply do the captain’s bidding; it was known as the ‘Captain God Complex’. In one example a Boeing 727 was approaching Anchorage Airport. The captain was flying the aircraft and was flying 40 knots too fast and 200 feet too low with the aircraft in the wrong configuration for landing.

The co-pilot spoke out but was told to shut up; he spoke out again and was told to shut up again. The flight engineer then made a joke to the captain at the co-pilot’s expense, “what’s the difference between a duck and a co-pilot?…a duck can fly”. “Well said” said the captain and a few minutes later he crashed the aircraft. Of course, the captain was authoritarian because he had been treated similarly when he was a co-pilot; fortunately the Western aviation industry has now all but overcome this problem by introducing a ‘just culture’.

A just culture is where anyone in an organisation can speak up without fear of retribution or ridicule; of course, this does not sit easily with authoritarian leaders who see it as a challenge to their fiefdoms and view subordinates who speak-up as mutineers.

The issue of overly authoritarian leaders is a difficult one because it is the leader who is responsible and carries the can if things go wrong. The leader is empowered to make decisions and give orders and direction; a leader who overly relies on their subordinates for decision-making may be seen as weak so it’s a fine line between being too authoritarian and being seen as indecisive. In general though, rigid authoritarian leadership only works in the short-term and those who try to practice it all the time eventually fail; often because their subordinates are so fed-up that they let them fail.

No one said leadership is easy…that’s why you’re paid to be the leader.

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