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Posted by on Feb 23, 2012 in Business, Future of Leadership, Inspirational, Leadership | 7 comments

3 Questions to Achieve Authoritative Leadership That Mobilizes People by Alan Kay

How do we mobilize people in new ways?

The old way – give orders

A NY Times article recently noted, ‘Beijing continues to practice the alchemy of authoritarianism.’ Good for the Chinese people who tolerate it and think it works! Trouble is, authoritarian works fine when things are growing – you can paper over the cracks.

Because North American and European businesses are not growing, autocratic leadership no longer works. Sure, high-growth tech businesses like Facebook need impatient authoritarian leaders on the upward trajectory – the CEO thinks, ‘I can’t afford to worry about motivated staff, and VC partners don’t want to hear about it.’ Still, they need to avoid the AOL authoritarian leadership disaster. Apple may be the exception, so far!

The new way – people make the difference, not the just the leader

Most organizations in the West compete globally and are profitable in low to moderate growth mode – they are sustainable largely through productivity gains. Today, the call is, ‘do more with less.’ Technology will continue to support productivity advances, but  people support productivity gains. Hence, the advantages of switching to authoritative leadership.

Yes, every organization is different so applying the principles of authoritative leadership will vary. Imagine the difference between leading a nuclear plant where there’s zero tolerance for technical mistakes and leading an organization like Tony Hsieh’s Zappos where there’s almost no tolerance for messing with the customer?

Another perspective is the recent merger of United and Continental airlines where they are integrating complex systems (similar) and people cultures (dissimilar). United’s autocratic leadership model isn’t going to easily merge with Continental’s more enlightened approach to people.

So, how do we move to authoritative leadership and let go?

The principles are less complex than you’d think. You’ll need:

  • a view of the future and a clear purpose;
  • a conscious planning and change capability;
  • ability to define key problems and allow staff to create solutions;
  • guiding principles for a borderless and ambiguous world.

It’s not just culture. It’s strategy. (Call it conscious culture)

This is not an HR task; people are a goal-driven corporate strategy. There are strategic tools to help: The employment brand; Learning and development or Human development; Accountability leadership; Cross-functional and cross-stakeholder collaboration. And so on…

The leaders use these tools to: a) delegate the work, b) re-draw the org chart and c) let the staff innovate, manage change, learn from mistakes, and see the effect of their influence. Every organization must create value for customers, shareholders, etc. It’s time to mobilize staff in how that value is created.

Before the leader says, ‘whoa, that’s too much’…

  • pick a few tools that are right for your organization
  • set measures to evaluate what works and observe the ROI

These tools improve organizational productivity by improving the motivation of staff in ways that increase satisfaction, not just wages.

Therefore, 3 solutions-basedquestions for the authoritative leader are:

  • Where are we already making progress this way? (Just look, you’ll be surprised!)
  • Suppose things were different in a year or two, what would be happening?
  • Suppose we got there, what would have been the micro steps to get us started?


Should every organization adopt this strategy? In an intensely competitive market, if your strategy is clear, working and sustainable, the answer could be ‘not yet.’ Some leaders won’t care enough and they’ll survive, but never know how much it cost them.  Conversely, if your strategy looks questionable, start working on it this afternoon.

What other exceptions do you think exist?


Alan Kay helps organizations speed up change. They discover the solutions are in front of them. His book, ‘Fry a Monkey. Create a Solution’ helps the manager facilitate solutions.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Williams

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Alan Kay

Alan is an internationally renowned strategy and change advisor and an author of two books on speeding up change. Alan's work is widely influenced by the theory and application of Solution Focus, an approach that enables real attitudinal and behavioral change within organizations. He asks better questions to help teams build on strengths, clarify goals, and start taking action. Building on his credentials as a marketing communications client-service and general manager for a multi-national advertising business, Alan established his busy consulting practice, the Glasgow Group. Since its creation in 1994, The Glasgow Group has served a broad range of sectors in North America and Europe including financial services, technology, telco, advertising, government, education and not for profit. Alan is a peer-reviewed member of SFCT and his work is featured in a variety of books and journals. His book, ‘Fry the Monkeys. Create a Solution,’ has been widely acclaimed. He teaches executives at the business school of York University (Schulich/SEEC), in Toronto.

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  • CraigLund

    @alankay1 makes a fine point here.. I would that purposefulness is another key factor, not just for the people, but for the organization. Richard Branson calls this Capitalism 240902 (in his book Screw Business as Usual). Great post Alan

  • alankay1

    My good friend Dr. Alan Middleton who is Executive Director,Schulich Executive Education Centre (SEEC), Schulich School of Business, York University kindly reminds me of the following important point…
    ‘Looks good, but be careful your Anglo-Saxon bias is showing……you may be right in north America but not globally. 
    1. try this in Thailand and your team will come to you and say ‘why are you trying to get us to do your job’……and that’s if they like you, if they don’t they will say yea and do nothing 
    2. in parts of China this is also true 
    3. in Brazil they will laugh and do the opposite 
    4. in Mexico they won’t pay any attention to you and will just go on doing things in the way they always have. 
    Concepts of leadership are highly cultural……trouble is that most of the published literature on leadership comes from the three most highly individualistic societies in the world: US, Canada, UK’

    • Ted Coine

      Excellent point, Alan. A great book I read long ago is “Managing Across Cultures.” (Note to self: see if there’s a revised edition out there). The authors address this very issue: how does someone take cultural differences to heart when leading in another country – or, as happens quite often in today’s world, when managing teams and organizations that span multiple countries at once! Add to that multiple generations, and we can see how this ain’t your father’s management conundrum!

      But do democratic leadership techniques work in, for instance, Brazil? It works wonders for Semco. Take what to an anglo is a naturally-chaotic culture and add a strong dose of chaos, and somehow it functions exceeding well. So there’s hope, I guess is my point.

  • Shawn Murphy

    You make excellent points about the ethnocentricity that biases how we see leadership. I struggle with it myself. However, in our globally connected world we must become aware of how leadership is viewed in other countries if we are to be successful conducting business or just expanding our awareness.

  • http://www.brucesallan. Bruce Sallan

    So true…I try to be the authoritarian figure in my marriage…doesn’t work? Does that mean there are cracks present?

    • Alan Kay

      Marriage is the least fun and easiest place to find out the high cost of being authoritarian!

  • Ted Coine

    Alan, I love how practical your heretical advice is. One thing I’m always conscious of is for leaders to think my views and suggestions are too “out there” to work in the real world of their company – it’s why I so actively gather and use examples of real-life companies in my writing and speaking: ‘No, I’m not making this up: it works here, here, and here.’ Your three solution-based questions are powerful because they’re so practical.

    Bravo, my friend! Thank you for bringing great value to our burgeoning community of great thinkers!