My way or highway: it’s more common than we would like to believe

This leadership style is supposed to be archaic, with hardly any leader following it, especially if he / she nurtures a desire to be successful. It may be outdated, but by no means has it gone out of practice.

I recollect an experience where I was requested by a leader to design a solution for him. He was worried that his team did not take ownership, blamed others if results were not delivered; there was no bonhomie in the team. He wanted us to design a solution that will resolve these issues and help his team work better and deliver results.

Collaborative meetings? Only in name.

To get an understanding of the team dynamics, I sat through a team meeting presided by him. The purpose of the meeting, as stated by him, was to review few projects and collaboratively work with his team to decide the way forward. He opened the meeting stating that he would welcome ideas from all. And emphasized the need to work collaboratively. Within few minutes, the meeting took a different turn. He did most of the talking. He had a senior team with years of experience. This leader was clear in his mind on how the projects should progress; he poured forth his logic on why they should adopt the way suggested by him. Few people put forward counter arguments and suggested different approaches. He pretended to listen. But, after some time pushed back his own thoughts. Couple of team members seconded his thought, which obviously pleased him, he gave them an affirmative nod. And the team, supposedly collaboratively, agreed to move forward the way he wanted them to.

To give him the benefit of doubt, I sat through two more meetings. Similar trend continued. He sought ideas from his team, made all right gestures of listening, but ultimately the team had to accept his suggestions and ideas. Interestingly the same two people agreed with him.

Was it a surprise that his team was not taking ownership? And lacked bonhomie?

This leader knew that he has to be collaborative in order to be successful. He believed that he was collaborative, as he was seeking suggestions. In reality, he was anything but collaborative. He clearly followed the ‘MY WAY OR HIGHWAY’ leadership style. To make matters worse, he was following it in the garb of collaboration.

Unfortunately, this leader by no means is an exception. I have come across several such leaders in corporate world. At cognizance level, they know the pitfalls of this leadership style. They have read books, probably attended trainings that increased their awareness levels – they understand the need to listen to all suggestions without bias, objectively weigh all solutions and decide the right way forward. Irony lies in the fact that KNOWING IS ONE THING, DOING IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THING.

 Why does it happen? Why do leaders unknowingly follow this style? It may happen when leaders:

  1. Presume that they know much more than others in their team. They believe in their higher capability and try to shove their ideas. Again, there are two possibilities for this:
    • The leader may truly know much more, especially if there is a large gap between the knowledge, experience of the leader and his team,
    • Or it may only be in the mind of the leader, like the leader in my example. Because he was the boss and had more experience, he believed that he knew the best

 2.  Are under pressure to quickly deliver results

3.  Are handling an emergency, a crisis situation

A ‘highway or my way’ leadership style is justifiable only in an emergency situation. It ends up in undesirable results in all other situations. It leaves people demotivated, unwilling to take ownership and accountability for results. How often have we heard people say at the end of a meeting, “Well, it’s your funeral. You want me to work this way, I will. If things don’t work out, only you are to be blamed.”

 So is there way out?

When I spoke to this leader (who wanted me to design a solution) about his leadership style– he genuinely did not believe that he was pushy and autocratic. It came as a shock to him. Simply because he followed the motions of collaboration, he thought that he was a collaborative leader.

At the same time, some leaders are aware of their ‘my way or highway style’, but sincerely believe that it is the right thing to do, even when the team is capable and even when their style was negatively impacting the team. They tend to turn a blind eye, basking in their belief of ‘know it all’.

There’s possibly a way out for the first kind, ones who adopt this leadership style unwittingly. They can be helped. However, the second type are the tough nuts, demanding the organizations to take equally tough calls!

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