Democracy or dictatorship? Empowerment is a two-way street

IN THE WESTERN WORLD, most of us believe democracy is a better model for leadership than dictatorship. But in the UK with the recent jubilee celebrations, we can see there is strong support for a very undemocratic leader – the Queen! And in our day to day business lives, we do not live in a democracy either.

As leaders in business, we are not voted in by our people either – we do not have a mandate from them – we get our mandate from our bosses, and they appoint based on getting results, not on the support we have from our people. This doesn’t mean business leaders are dictators, although at its extremes we know it is open to abuse – most of us have seen behaviour from business leaders which is not that different eg. bullying and cronyism to protect their position. That’s a separate conversation.

Away from those extremes, this democracy analogy throws up three interesting questions in business: What does it mean as a leader to have a mandate from our people? How effective is a leader without a mandate from his/her people? And how do we as leaders go about getting this mandate?

Modern leadership thinking places strong emphasis on empowerment – if leaders empower their people, then they will get engagement and much higher voluntary productivity. Not many would have issue with this, even if it’s easier said than done.

However, the question about leadership mandate turns this on its head – leaders need their people to empower them as well.

A mandate from our people empowers us as leaders to operate with freedom to decide and act, knowing people will follow. How much more effective is a leader who knows that people will follow – compared with those leaders we have all come across who are constantly having to go back to their people and either (1) build consensus retrospectively, or (2) just tell them to do it. How much is performance held back by the resulting resistance to change, delay, friction and dysfunctional behaviour that comes from situations where leaders push ahead with an agenda where they do not have the mandate of their people?

How interesting then to reflect on the very un-democratic leadership model of the British monarchy. Opinion polls show that the Queen has more support than our elected politicians. And why? The reasons people gave were her unequivocal sense of service to her people, consistency between her words and her action, and consistency of her words and action over time.

The queen is not elected, but she knows very well that she and the survival of the monarchy relies on an informal mandate from here people – and there can’t be many better role models of how to do it well.

People will empower their leaders when they trust them. It’s just a matter of being committed to serving your people and being consistent – as well as empowering them. Empowerment is a two-way street.

Stuart Pickles is the former FD of Foster’s EMEA. He now runs and is blogging regularly for Financial Director

Image credit: Shutterstock

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