The Argument for 'Benevolent Dictatorship' in Decision-making

Don Tennant

I've come to know a lot of CIOs and other IT leaders over the years, and if there's one quality that characterizes those who've been the most successful, it has to be their willingness to make tough decisions without feeling compelled to go through the time- and energy-sapping ordeal of trying to build a consensus or analyzing the situation to death. So when I spoke last week with Michael Feuer, the co-founder and longtime CEO of OfficeMax, I was nodding so much I felt like a bobblehead in an earthquake.


Feuer, author of the book, "The Benevolent Dictator: Empower Your Employees, Build Your Business and Outwit the Competition," has, once and for all, debunked the myth that the best leaders are consensus builders. My interview with Feuer is posted here, but this excerpt from our conversation will give you an idea of where this guy is coming from:

I can remember from my OfficeMax days, I loved the company except for three constituents: the employees, the customers, and the investors. Other than that, I had a great time every day of my life. But I know the IT guys would get so damn frustrated because they'd have to go through levels to get through the capital appropriations process. I happened to love IT, and I would sometimes just cut to the chase, bring in the thought leaders in a given project that needed money, and I'd say, "Tell me about it, explain to me what's in it for us." And then I'd say, "We'll make it happen," or "Don't waste your time, we're done." When I'd say "Make it happen," they were, of course, very pleased. When I said "Don't waste your time," they'd say, "Thanks," because they're not beating their heads against the wall, and they go do something else.

Sounds like the kind of leader every IT worker wishes he or she was working for, doesn't it?


Our conversation aside, Feuer has come up with a list of seven tips on how to make decisions like a benevolent dictator, and I felt they were well worth sharing here:


  • Learn to make "battlefield" decisions. Being a leader in business is somewhat like being a commander on a battlefield - things are happening quickly, and many of them are outside your control. Generals and general managers are a lot alike. Neither group always has the luxury of going over every little detail or asking their people what they think should happen. They have to move fast. They have to think on their feet. To take advantage of a competitor's weakness, you have to be able to move quickly, and you can't do that if you spend too much time trying to figure out what every last person on the team thinks.
  • Have a "ready, aim, fire" attitude. After OfficeMax's first year, we'd actually grown nicely and were operating stores in Ohio, New York and Michigan. Better yet, we'd done so with no real casualties and just a few wounds. In hindsight, the key to that first year's success was our ability to make on-the-run decisions rather than conduct lengthy analysis that would have meant waiting weeks - if not months - before taking the next step. I was often forced to make decisions on the fly, even if I didn't have as much information or understanding as I'd ideally like, and the dictator side of me was willing to take that risk. Along the way, I learned a few things that helped me make choices that were as smart and calculated as possible, given the circumstances. The smell test is one of the best tools to use if you aren't positive about a decision. Essentially, that means if something doesn't smell right to you, it most likely isn't going to work, so take a pass.
  • Remember that leading benevolently means never having to say you're sorry. Sometimes when leaders must take the initiative to quickly put their decisions into practice, they feel like the schoolyard bully. But that's where the benevolent side of your leadership must kick in. I certainly appreciate the effect my decisions have on all of my constituents, starting with our customers. Without them, of course, we wouldn't have a business. A benevolent dictator style may sound autocratic at first, but when the emphasis is on the benevolent portion, meaning you're doing what is right for the greater good, the odds for success move in your favor. I also always made it clear to my employees how much I appreciated and valued them. During high-stress periods, I would explain, "You know the next few days are critical for us, so if I ask for something, infer that I said please,' and when you do it, know that I mean thank you.'"
  • Avoid the B.S. People are willing to do just about anything for their leaders as long as the leader is honest about his intentions and avoids falling back on an excuse for why he wasn't able to use an employee's idea or ask for others' opinions on a certain decision. We were moving so fast in the early days of OfficeMax that most of my team members accepted the ground rules that came along with my being a benevolent dictator. They understood that it meant that there would be situations where I couldn't open a decision up for debate or when I would have to rein in a discussion. Most of them appreciated this directness because they respected and understood that we needed to forge ahead quickly.
  • Beware of the desire for "zero risk." Yes, analyzing data and making informed decisions is good. The problems start when analysis is used as a crutch or to avoid pulling the trigger. You begin second-guessing yourself and giving more and more thought to "what ifs," and before you know it, you've lost the use of speed as a competitive advantage. The team becomes terrified to move forward, and all involved find themselves playing out woulda-coulda-shoulda scenarios. Some entrepreneurs and business leaders get stuck in analysis paralysis and consensus building in an attempt to have zero risk. But since you'll never be 100 percent guaranteed to succeed, you'll be stuck studying, researching and consensus-building in a circular fashion. At that point, analysis will become an excuse for continued delays and can doom a project from ever getting off the ground. Remember that you must always be moving forward - there's no such thing as a pause button or instant replay in business.
  • Sleep on it. There will of course be decisions in your entrepreneurial career that require analysis and deep thinking. Often, the best way to work out these problems is to put your subconscious to work. Soon after launching OfficeMax, I started thinking about some of my biggest challenges right before going to bed. I had read a lot about subconscious and subliminal thinking, and had determined that if I focused on a problem, my subconscious would help me come up with plans A, B, and C. Amazingly, I would wake up after four or five hours of sleep and presto - I would have answers (or at least possible answers) to the problems I had been pondering when I went to bed. Doing this allowed me to hit the ground running every morning.
  • Learn to make decisions for the love of the company. When you do what is right for the company, not just to please this or that group, then you're halfway there in making your undertaking work. At all costs, avoid making decisions based on how they will affect the "us" or "them" groups in the company. Sure, some in the "us" camp will disrespect you, and many of the "thems" will dis you at every turn. Others will refuse to utter your name. But rest easy. You made your decisions for the greater good and love of the company. All things being equal, you will not only survive, but also succeed. Decisions aren't supposed to be easy, especially for leaders. Business is not a popularity contest. To make your move, you must listen and learn. Always study the consequences of your decisions from all perspectives - short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term - but learn to do so quickly and effectively. As time goes by, you'll become better and more comfortable with making smart decisions.

Add Comment      Leave a comment on this blog post
Aug 9, 2011 12:14 PM R. Lawson R. Lawson  says:

Seems like a really sharp guy.  I'm not in a position where I can be a benevolent (or un-benevolent) dictator but I'm perfectly capable of being armchair quarterback

I agree with much of what he says.  I think that good CIOs will build some consensus and weigh the input of their trusted advisors.  So although I can agree that 100% agreement should almost never be the goal I would caution CIOs about completely ignoring the people around them. 

I may (or may not) have a client that has a similar problem.  In order for an application to get released into production, the entire organization needs to evaluate the impact it has on their individual group (even if it has nothing to do with their group).  Unfortunately this exercise results in a very protracted cycle and nothing seems to get done.  My guess is that it's because of all the little kingdoms built up and everyone wants to have their hand on the lever.

I'm one of those guys who absolutely hates offshoring, but it becomes obvious why some CIOs opt to do just that whenever I see groups that seem to do nothing but obstruct progress.  In many cases the CIO probably think it is easier to terminate a group than to fix it.

The biggest problem I see in today's IT department is a lack of trust going in both directions.  Employees have good reason not to trust that their employer care about their long term employment and that is probably a driving force in the buildup of these little "kingdoms" and silos that stifle productivity and smart decision making.  Fear and distrust result in people building walls that are very difficult (and costly) to knock down. 


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