Orchestrator or Autocrat?

getty imagesThis weekend’s Wall Street Journal contained an article by former Chrysler and General Motors executive Bob Lutz called “Life Lessons from a Car Guy.”  Lutz believes that different kinds of organizations require different kinds of leaders.  A loosely-connected conglomerate like General Electric requires a leader with vision and portfolio management skills; investing/divesting lines of business, setting governance and performance goals, and choosing appropriate leaders for the individual businesses.  In contrast, an automotive company is akin to a human being with highly evolved individual departments that rely on each other for day-to-day operations. For these kinds of organizations, Lutz claims that the “much-scorned autocratic style of management” is essential for success.

When Lutz arrived at GM, its culture emphasized “benevolent, thoughtful sharing and showing respect for other.” Data was valued over opinions; debates were discouraged.  In the article’s sidebar, Lutz provides a hysterical example of the lengths to which this analytical culture was taken.  David E. Davis, founder of Automobile Magazine and an accomplished presenter, received the following letter from GM after speaking at one of their conferences:

Dear David:

You asked for feedback on your remarks at our recent conference. The data is just now available.

The rating scale was zero to ten with ten being “best.” The five non-GM speakers had scores ranging from zero to ten. Yours ranged from three to ten. The five “outside speakers'” average scores ranged from 5.25 to 8.25.

Your average was 7.35.
Two speakers had higher scores than yours.

Your standard deviation from the mean was 1.719 and ranked second among the variances, showing that most people had a similar opinion about your remarks.

I personally enjoyed your remarks very much. Your refreshing candor, coupled with your broad understanding of people, product, and the market, gave us exactly what we asked you for—”widened competitive awareness.”

Thank you for your participation.

Outside Speaker Effective Analysis Group

While detailed analysis like this might be suitable for professional training, it’s complete overkill for remarks over dinner.

In this environment, Lutz adopted the style of a benevolent dictator, spending hundreds of hours preaching his vision of product excellence and customer satisfaction.  GM seems to have regained some of its stature as a result.

Thinking closer to home, the software industry – in which companies are structured more like an automotive company than a conglomerate – is rife with stories of dictatorial CEOs.  Personally, I can remember multiple times during my past start-ups in which I “strongly suggested” that a feature should be added or that the user interface changed.  The strong-arming seemed to get product to market more quickly.

However, as my span of control has increased and I have had to deal with the resulting complexity, I have leaned more towards orchestration.  I’ve become more evangelist than benevolent dictator.

Orchestration or autocrat? It may feel better to work for the orchestrator but which style do you think produces better results?

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11 Responses to Orchestrator or Autocrat?

  1. Carmen O'Shea June 14, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    Interesting post Jonathan. I think the style depends in part on the employee and the particular situation. While it’s likely that leaders have a primary style, I believe the best ones can modulate their approach based on how employees respond and the needs of the moment. Some employees crave specific direction in order to perform effectively, especially under certain circumstances. Others chafe at the same. Even an autocrat may find himself needing to handle some employees in a more collaborative manner if that’s what makes them tick. Leadership style, as with corporate culture, is rarely monolithic for best effect.

  2. Anonymous June 14, 2011 at 10:35 pm #

    If we add ‘inspirational’ as an adjective to orchestrator, I think it makes a big difference. If great software depends on great motivated people, and it is a people to people business, there is a lot going for inspired orchestration as a better leadership style for sustainable results. If short term results with high churn is the focus, by all means, a fear based dictatorship style works. But potentially puts the ‘great’ and ‘sustainable’ at risk.

  3. Timo Elliott June 15, 2011 at 12:42 am #

    As an aside, I don’t at all find the email ridiculous — as a frequent speaker at events, I would LOVE to get this level of detail (or ideally, all the data). All too often, I get a score out of 5 without any context, and have to pester the organizers to get more….

    • Jonathan June 15, 2011 at 11:07 am #

      TImo, in your case, you are giving a professional presentation so it makes sense for detailed analysis. In the case sited, he made comments over dinner. Overkill

  4. Norman Marks June 15, 2011 at 8:29 am #

    I agree with Carmen that this is an interesting topic. I tend to think that the executive has to modify his or her style to the situation. A benevolent dictator won’t work so well when the Huns are at the gate. But whatever the style, the executive has to be true to themselves. Trust comes only when you are who you are.

  5. Liz Brenner June 16, 2011 at 6:41 am #

    Nice, thought-provoking post, Jonathan. I shared this with my Twitter network because I’m curious to hear the views on this. For me, leadership style isn’t as important as 3 key traits that make for a good leader:

    1. The ability to inspire – to get others to share in their vision.
    2. The ability to empower – to surround themselves with the right people and trust them to make good decisions and execute.
    3. The ability to support – to create an environment where smart risks are encouraged.

  6. Drew June 16, 2011 at 8:14 am #

    Interesting post Jonathan. My take: Except in extreme circumstances (e.g. on the battlefield in Afghanistan) leaders should always go for orchestration over autocracy. The efficiencies gained from a high control approach are short lived. As Liz states, I believe sustainable high performance can only be achieved through inspiration, empowerment and support.

  7. Marcus Starke June 16, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    I definitely believe in orchestration and empowerment. In the age of the information worker people are motivated and inspired by leaders who are multipliers instead of diminishers. A multiplier brings out the best in people and teams by encouraging them to take risk, take responsibility, take charge and run. These leaders give direction and inspiration and they don’t micro-manage.

  8. Joe Kopetsky June 17, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    Jonathan – thanks for the inspiration – and it will be infinitely harder to limit my response to just a few sentences (on such a critical topic) than it will be to provide an answer to the question – but I will attempt to do both.
    I see autocracy and/or orchestration as leadership “styles”. Great, intuitive leaders – ones that are challenged by a range of situations, varied degrees of input/information and many possible outcomes – have the flexibility and intuition to know what “style” is necessary in a given situation to maximize the common good (and we are talking about common good, correct? :)).
    But back to reality – the necessary direction and style of our leadership, IMHO is based on the needs of those that are being led. When an organization (such as ours) is filled with well-educated, intelligent and motivated individuals, what they need from their leaders can be pretty clear: information (breadth and depth), communication, vision, passion, personal responsibility and discipline, consistency of action, etc (I am sure I am forgetting some good ones here). My point: in our situation, it is less about the structure of the company (truth be told, most companies need a structural “makeover”) and less about the “style” of leadership and more about what we offering to them as their leaders.
    The challenge that I give myself as a leader is to maximize the potential of each of the people that I “manage” – and I see great examples of other leaders doing that here at SAP every day. This allows us to forget about ourselves and concentrate on the effects and results that great leadership is meant to produce in the first place.

    • Jonathan August 2, 2011 at 8:08 pm #

      Joe, thanks for the thoughtful response. While I generally agree, I wonder whether we put too much faith in the leader and not enough in the follower. See my recent post on the need for the first follower.

  9. Jon Reed June 19, 2011 at 6:21 am #

    I see a limitation by framing this debate as an “either/or.” The most savvy leaders understand how to attune each situation and determine the right mix of consensus and decisiveness (which might be another way of describing the two styles). To me, where the real foulups occur is when the style is unclear or the expectations around it not made visible. For example, I have worked for and with a number of executives who saw themselves in an inclusive orchestration light when they were in fact hypocritical autocrats.

    Perhaps no one wants to call themselves an autocrat but to me the best leaders are clear with their team about exactly how much input they have and in what context. Of course this varies by organizational culture. I remain fascinated by good leadership and have to admit it takes different forms sometimes than the styles I try to emulate.

    – Jon

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