Category Archives: Leadership

Post Autocratic Stress Syndrome

I spotted this tweet quote from Neil Denny recently:

“The more a manager controls the more he/she evokes behaviours that necessitate greater control or managing” Covey

The tweet got me thinking about overbearing management styles, and two people in particular. More importantly though, it got me thinking about how organisations perform after an autocrat departs.


a ruler who has absolute power.

Sir Alex Ferguson

The former manager of Manchester United, Sir Alex Ferguson, has been getting plenty of airtime lately publicising his autobiography. I’ve not read it and I confess that after listening to him being interviewed on the radio, I’m unlikely to. The way he and others talk about his management style leaves me cold. Arrogance and a desire to bully seems to ooze from his every pore.

Since Ferguson’s departure, the previously hugely succesful Manchester United team has struggled to make its usual impact on the field of play. I may be wrong, I often am, and I think there’s a good chance they won’t be title contenders in the Premiership this season. Fifteen games in and Manchester united are currently in ninth place, and only nine games into the season, they had conceded as many points as in thirty games last season.

Ferguson ruled with a rod of iron, it was his way or the highway. And now he’s gone, despite having another experienced, well respected manager come in to take his place, the team seems lost.

Sir Terry Leahy

The former CEO of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, has been quiet of late. In the aftermath of him leaving Tesco, he wrote a book titled Management in Ten Words and then seemed to fade away. Something else has happened since Leahy left Tesco, the company has struggled, compared to its previous unstoppable power. In the year to February 23, 2013, Tesco saw its profits after tax slump from £2.8bn to just £120m because of falling UK sales. They took a £1bn hit to exit the US, and an £804m writedown on UK land. The share price in May 2011 shortly after Leahy left was £4.22, currently it sits around £3.30, and the former chairman Lord MacLaurin has recently criticised the sad legacy left by the outgoing CEO.

Under Leahy, Tesco was well known for screwing its suppliers in order to maximise shareholder profits working with its suppliers to get the best deal for customers, a practice this article in The Grocer says they now say they are trying to change. The article states that Tesco management acknowledges it has been ‘guilty of arrogance, bureaucracy and hierarchy in the past’.

Coincidentally, In a recent Telegraph interview, Ferguson references Leahy.

‘Leadership, as I’ve known it, from my time as manager, has come in different stages. If you look at Sir Terry Leahy, who had a short spell as leader at Tesco, as opposed to my 27 years, the gathering of all the things he learnt, and the qualities he has, is similar to myself, in the sense that he was in control of a big unit.’

I think that part of the problem for both Manchester United and Tesco is that having been ruled over in such a way, people have unlearned how to think for themselves. The squad that David Moyes inherited at Manchester United contains many top quality players, and though I know less about them, I don’t suppose the entire management structure at Tesco are dead weights either. Yet both teams are under performing dramatically.

It must be hard to be humble when you’re being feted, by fans and shareholders alike, but I think part of the true test of leadership goes beyond the immediate tenure of the leader. How do people behave after you’ve gone? Did you co-create something sustainable, or did you craft something so suited to your style that no successor is likely to succeed? In the case of these two examples at least, I think they’re currently coming up short.

On Parole

The Prisoner - On Parole

The reminder goes off on your electronic calendar, buzzing like a tiny wasp in a jar. You check your crackberry nervously for two reasons.

1: You have a phobia about wasps, and

2: It’s performance review time.

You’ve had the initial review with your manager and agreed on a suitably outstanding grade that will trigger the bonus payment you both think you’ve earned. Today, senior managers are meeting to carry out the forced ranking of the performance curve. Today is the day of reckoning.

Each review meeting is two hours long and typically each person’s case is considered in a random order (hey it’s all about fairness here, right?), for around six minutes. You know that in previous years, around a third of those who shoot for the moon in terms of a bonus payment, land safely. So the odds aren’t fabulous, but hey – you got an outstanding grade, you’ll be fine…right?

Wrong. Your manager emerges from the review meeting looking tired and drawn and she is reluctant to make eye contact with you. You know you’re busted, and sure enough, you got downgraded. ‘Sorry’, says your boss. ‘Yours was one of the last reviews we considered, and it didn’t make it over the line.’ All of a sudden, the kids ain’t going to Disneyland and that new car just sped a little further away down the track of life.

You head back to your desk, resigned to your fate, and on the way back you pass two of your high performing colleagues. Simon and Sarah couldn’t look more different from you if they tried. Big smiles, high fives and eyes full of ££££ signs. For them, the eagle has landed. ‘How did they both manage to hang on to their bonus when I didn’t?’ you think to yourself. ‘I’m at least as good as Sarah and waaaay better than Simon. Life is so unfair.’

It turns out that Simon and Sarah were among the first people to be reviewed in that two hour meeting. And it turns out that you were on the wrong end of something scientists call, ‘The Depletion Effect’.

The following is an extract from ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman.

A disturbing demonstration of depletion effects in judgment was recently reported in the ‘Proceedings of The National Academy of Sciences’. The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel. They spend entire days reviewing applications for parole. The cases are presented in random order, and the judges spend little time on each one, an average of six minutes. The default decision is denial of parole, only 35% of requests are approved.

The exact time of each decision is recorded, and the times of the three judges’ food breaks – morning, lunch and afternoon – during the day are recorded as well. The authors of the study plotted the proportion of approved requests against the time since the last food break. The proportion spikes after each meal break, when about 65% of requests are granted. During the next two hours or so, until the judges’ next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal….The best possible account of the data provides bad news: tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default positioning of denying requests for parole.

Over the years I’ve lost track of the amount of people who allow their diaries to be flooded with back to back meetings. If you are one of those people, and you probably are, then the chances are you’re making poor decisions that affect you, your people and your customers.

Yeah I know you’re busy, but I also know that in order to go fast, you’ve got to learn to slow down. Until then – you’re a prisoner in your own workplace.

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