Leadership style and the turnaround executive - Sample Essay

In situations that call for a turnaround or retrenchment, there is still some room for autocratic, directive practices. But never for despotism. Unqualified support for democratic leadership and individual autonomy has been the cultural norm of U. S. society since the end of World War II. After all, Germany and Japan, two autocratic nations that visited indescribable horror on their neighbors, were defeated by democratic societies (with the exception of the USSR), though only after more than 50 million lives were lost. Afterward, the “Cold War” that set in was played out largely between democratic and autocratic societies.

It is little wonder, then, that many thoughtful people began asking: How did these societies become so autocratic, and can this happen in the United States? When those asking these questions surveyed the landscape, they found that many institutions, including many companies, were run in an autocratic fashion. Were these institutions, in turn, unwittingly readying their members to accept such a form of government? Research Support for Democratic Leadership Academics, of course, were curious as to whether empirical leadership studies were available to support the impression-driven conclusions they had formulated.

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When social scientists reviewed the empirical literature, all they found at the time to support their predilection for democratic leadership were the Iowa Leadership Studies (Lewin, Lippitt, and White 1939). These were conducted on young boys in a laboratory setting, and were originally unintended for application to work settings. The popular bias toward democratic leadership has been reinforced by the widely circulated theories of Rensis Likert, who interpreted research, especially the Michigan Leadership Studies (Katz and Kahn 1952), as unqualified support for his participative and permissive concept of effective leadership.

More recently, subordinate participation and freedom of action in the work place have become expected, and even demanded, in a democratic society populated with so many Baby Boomers. Such a predisposition toward democracy is exacerbated by the tendency for certain words to take on a pejorative connotation irrespective of their denotation. “Bureaucracy” and “power” are good examples; “autocratic” and “directive” are even better ones.

We often lose sight of the fact that the directive autocrat is not some misanthrope or ogre, but merely a person who is paid to make the important decisions, set the salient goals, and direct subordinates along the way–especially in a crisis, when subordinates tend to rally around a decisive leader. The virtual stranglehold that participative leadership has maintained over popular belief systems is perhaps best illustrated by the slavish tendency to wed this philosophy to every new approach to management that surfaces: Management by Objectives, Quality Control Circles, Total Quality Management, Self-Managed Work Teams.

Participative leadership was grafted on to each of these approaches and was sometimes mistaken for the main aim of the process itself. Marshall Sashkin (1984) speaks for many people in and out of academe when he posits that participative management is an ethical imperative for anyone who adheres to the fundamental values of Western civilization. Given the cultural aversion to autocratic leadership, it is understandable why practitioners and scholars alike often forget that many, if not most, organizations are simply not ready for heavy doses of subordinate participation and individual autonomy.

Yet when the entire corpus of leadership research is examined objectively, the unqualified acceptance of democratic leadership is largely a leap of faith as opposed to a conclusion based on empirical research or, for that matter, on logic and experience. Theory, research, and experience indicate rather convincingly that effective leaders, perforce, adapt their behavior to the requirements, constraints, and opportunities presented by internal and external environments.

This is particularly true for the amount of subordinate participation in making decisions and setting goals, as well as leader direction or follow-up in executing those decisions and attaining those goals. Notions of adaptive behavior have long been cornerstones of “contingency” theories of management, whereas the idea of responsiveness to situations was the main impetus for “situational” theories of leadership. There is agreement that more power equalization exists in organizations now than ever before, and that in all likelihood the “zone of indifference” is shrinking.

Nevertheless, most employees still concede to their superior the right to make decisions and set goals, as well as the authority to direct the processes leading to those results. So long as the decisions and goals are considered by subordinates as legitimate and reasonable, and the subordinates are treated with courtesy, dignity, and respect, the autocratic and directive supervisor is received much better by subordinates than management literature–academic and practitioner-oriented alike–would have us believe.

Nowhere are these points manifested more clearly than in the case of successful turnaround or retrenchment executives. Leadership and Success in implementing a Turnaround or Retrenchment Mission “We strategize beautifully, we implement pathetically,” say U. S. automobile executives (“Detroit Downer”… 1991). H. Igor Ansoff, a well-known strategic management scholar, agrees, stating, “It is no trick to formulate strategy; the problem is to make it work” (Ansoff 1988).

What both practitioner and academic are telling us is that, ultimately, what will separate the winners from the losers is the ability to execute. Clearly, strategy implementation can break down for any of a number of reasons. But the kind of leadership provided by key executives appears to be near the top of the list. Concept of leadership. Leadership has been defined in many and sometimes contradictory ways.

We use the following concept because (a) it expresses leadership in terms of behaviors that are practical for leaders to adopt, and (b) it reconciles the controversy between normative and situational leadership schema on the assumption that the two camps have been concerned with important, but entirely different, aspects of leadership. Briefly, this mid-range leadership theory encompasses five crucial leadership dimensions: Continued from page 2 1. consideration (concern for people; good human relations; treating subordinates with dignity, courtesy, and respect);

2. concern for production (emphasis on challenging goals; achievement orientation; high standards); 3. incentive for performance (the strongest performance-reward connection that organizational constraints will permit); 4. participation, or democratic leadership (the degree to which employees are involved in significant day-to-day, work-related decisions, including goal setting); and 5. direction (the amount of follow-up or directive behavior associated with the execution of a decision once it has been made, or the attainment of a goal once it has been set).

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