Autocratic or democratic?

Often I get asked which management / leadership style is best? Autocratic or democratic?

I was first challenged with this question by my training manager Yvonne Reynolds when I was 19 years old, a rookie in management training school with Taco Time Intl., a chain of Mexican style fast food restaurants based in the Pacific North West of the US. Having come out of the Navy, I naively answered “autocratic”. I still laugh about my answer today. And I guess my style was autocratic back in those early days. Lets face it: I had been trained as a drill sargent and a bosun on deck operations on a river patrol boat. Autocratic was the flavour there!

However, I rapidly learned through experience very early on in my management career running restaurants that restaurant staff were not sailors and that a restaurant was not a battle ship! I learned the hard way: staff would rebel against me, plot against me and complain about me to my superiors, who had mixed emotion about me: on one hand my restaurants results (both in sales, profits and standards of quality, service and cleanliness) were the best in the company, and by quite a long stretch; but on the other hand, my team was not always a happy team, often complaining (about me working them too hard) .

I almost made the mistake of reshaping my style to “democratic”, giving the initiative (and the control) to the staff hoping this would make them happier (it didn’t). One morning, my training manger (the same great lady called Yvonne) came to my store -to my rescue! She sat me down and got me thinking hard about leadership styles. What style should we adopt? was her question. After hours of reflection on all my experiences to date, deliberation about autocratic versus democratic and some deep thinking I came up with my answer: “no fixed style as every situation is different”. I was pretty close. She was pleased. The correct answer was: “the appropriate style for the situation” or “situational leadership”. 

This style largely takes into account the ability of the staff concerned, the level of training they had received, and their willingness / motivation to do the task. With that understanding, the manager/leader could then determine the right mix of directing, supporting, coaching and delegating required for optimum efficiency and results… for each individual and/or team. Common sense really, but how many managers know this? To this day, as I experience service and purchase products from all sorts of companies ranging from airlines to coffee bars, I am generally disappointed to see that most managers seem not to know. A recent visit to KFC at Leicester square showed me a good example of a “democratic” management style totally out of control! The staff ruled, and the customer had to wait, for cold, unappetising food…No please, no thank you, no eye contact. This was quite an extreme case, but I could cite dozens of similarly poorly managed outlets within a stones throw.

Back to the story: Yvonne gave me some books to study including Blanchard’s best selling book on Leadership. I recommend it: “Leadership and the one minute manager”. The missing link was found and I became an excellent restaurant operator. And the rest, as they say, is history.



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