The Need for Authoritarian Leaders

On a bit of a 6+ week adventure (SF -> Boston -> Maine -> Greece -> Croatia/Bosnia -> Doha -> India), I’ve been able to make quite a dent in my to-read list; near the top of that list was Nathaniel Philbrick’s excellent In The Heart of The Sea.  It’s the story that inspired Moby Dick, and a bad movie (I’m told) of the same name was recently made.  The book is great; I recommend it.

After feeling a bit like I myself had survived a harrowing expedition through storms and disaster across the Pacific, There was a line towards the end that shook me back to my current context:

“Modern survival psychologists have determined that this “social”—as opposed to “authoritarian”—form of leadership is ill suited to the early stages of a disaster, when decisions must be made quickly and firmly. Only later, as the ordeal drags on and it is necessary to maintain morale, do social leadership skills become important.”

Analysis of leadership is not hard to come by (sand:beach :: leadership discussion:business school), but the balance between social and authoritarian leadership styles is one that I spend a great deal of time thinking about, both on a personal level and in evaluating early stage teams.

The whaleship Essex, while not a startup (it was actually quite a seasoned vessel), encountered great disasters that required decisive action on the part of it’s leader; Philbrick (along with cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, from whose notes Philbrick draws much of his story) contends that Captain George Pollard’s democratic approach to decision making and deferral to his officers played a large role in the ultimate fate of the crew.

While I haven’t heard of a sinking startup that resorted to cannibalism, the path along which startups grow is treacherous, and the authoritarian leadership required to steady the ship amidst the storm (see what I did there?) is certainly a prerequisite for a strong CEO.   Beyond that, however, the dynamic of the company will inevitably change as it goes from a few people in a garage (did you know that’s how some companies start?!) to a larger, more stable (hopefully) company, and as this happens, the skills associate with social leadership will become more important.

Scaling a company, and building a healthy corporate atmosphere is a complicated topic, and there are many schools of thought and accompanying examples of the “best” methods.  As I discussed in Hercules v. Theseus, brilliance and force are best when paired with empathy and humility, but at the earliest stages of a startup, an authoritarian style is a better indicator of a leader’s ability to build a truly great company from scratch.

In his must-read book, Originals, Adam Grant talks about forming coalitions, and the personalities required to get a cause of the ground compared to those required to scale it to a place where it has great impact (great ideas do not equate to success; great execution does).  Using the women’s suffrage movement as an example, he discusses how the original members of a group are generally the most radical, but once momentum is gained,  tempered leaders are more effective in forming coalitions that are required to foster a culture that allows the movement to reach scale.  There is a parallel here (albeit not perfect) where early company leaders must be fanatical about their company, and must be willing to confidently make difficult decisions and execute aggressively in order to get to a point where they can afford to focus more on morale and less on keeping the company alive.

As I think back to some of the deals that I’ve evaluated, the area where I’ve become the most cynical (e.g. where I’ve improved the most) when looking at deals, is team.  There are a lot of great ideas out there, but the number of people capable of executing on these ideas is much smaller; a passionate, authoritarian leader who can get shit done and knows how to coax the same out of others is so critical that when you hear someone say “I’d back her without even hearing the idea”, it’s barely an exaggeration (and it makes a lot of sense).

Bold decision-making does not mean recklessness, and it also doesn’t mean ignoring all advice or being a complete asshole all the time; it is, of course, not that black and white.  Captain Pollard may have been well liked, and he may have been a fine captain under certain circumstances, but he goes down in a storm 10 times out of 10 (in fact, he managed to go down twice before forced retirement), but in industries where storms are frequent (whaling and startups), the leader who, with the appropriate experience and wealth of knowledge, can command the respect of her team through bold decision making and ownership of responsibility, is a ship’s only chance.

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