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.

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

9 thoughts on “Post Autocratic Stress Syndrome”

  1. Doug, nice examples and for me you have hit the nail on the head and that is legacy and the change of leadership is what happens when you are not there, not just when you have left. One of the competency frameworks I use defines it as strategic use of leadership behaviours, and that you promote and value behaviours in others. I think its pretty near to Jim Collins “Level 5” leadership.

    I also think that your blog throws up “espoused verses theory in use”. Whilst I don’t know and have no experience of Leahy I too have heard various radio interviews of them both. Fergie I think you got “what it said on the tin”, but Leahy I did get a sense of talking a different story to what he did in practise.

    Like all these examples of “charismatic” leadership, they are stories, and what worries me is that these stories take hold because they seem far more appealing and dramatic that more humble and considered styles of leadership.

    Perhaps our challenge is for some more compelling stories, and the shame is the people we need to tell them probably won’t need or want to tell them!

    Nice blog

  2. Very interesting dichotomy Doug and one being a lifelong Red (yes I do get down to most games 😉 ) I feel I am ‘half qualified’ to comment on. I always thought that the way in which Utd acted to replace Ferguson was exemplary and would indeed lead to a sustainable future. Their actions in the transfer market and league since however have been less so. There are always several reasons as to why these things happen and in reality and the interplay of these factors is always more complicated that what we understand as mere fans looking on.

    Rio Ferdinand has gone on record as saying that the players are running around like ‘mad men’ before games wondering whether they will be playing. Whether you think he should have said this or not, (David Moyes clearly thinks not) whenever he speaks out, Ferdinand always (IMO) talks sense and seems to get to the heart of the issue. This would suggest to me that the players dont know where they stand. (key feature of ‘Leadership’ is it not?) Whilst this is always going to be a fall-out of such change, it is a perfect example of where leaders need to show flexibility and adapt and change. Ferguson always named his team early, to help in the preparation and training before games, which worked well for him and the players. Moyes hasn’t done this, creating a void and air of confusion at Old Trafford… HOWEVER, Is this an opportunity for Moyes to lead from the front by listening to the players and show flexibility to help re-introduce an element of familiarity to match preparations……Players are already too powerful though arent they ?

    The ironinc thing here of course is if he does it would be in direct opposite of Ferguson’s autocratic approach and indeed help to highlight the fact that the old regime indeed lives on, at least to a certain extent lives on. You can argue that it needs to live on in order to maintain the sustainability and success which it served so well over the past 25 years.

    This is just a small example of the types of things in play at the moment at Old Trafford, you could also argue however that Ferguson hasn’t left Moyes with a good squad at all (particularly midfield) and a couple of injuries to key players has led to an unlucky start for David moyes. You need an element of luck to succeed at anything…. BUT – you make your own luck don’t you… ??

    None the less a really interesting subject and always great to use footballing analogies.

    1. Thanks Lee. I confess I included Ferguson simply because of his management style – I have no interest in Manchester United per se. As a Tranmere Rovers supporter – I rarely look that far up the tables, I get a crick in my neck!

      You make an interesting point about players not knowing where they stand – and I think that is part of the post autocratic stress syndrome. Under Ferguson the players weren’t expected to think, just do as you are told. In a post Ferguson era, their inability to think for themselves, borne out of a long period of being so consistently micro managed, has left them….where I don’t exactly know. I might take a slightly more active interest in the team’s fortunes for a while, purely in the spirit of learning and development eh 🙂

  3. Copying in a comment I received on LinkedIn in response to this post:

    ‘I think that’s an interesting question, and it doesn’t just apply to CEOs. We all lead something – when we’re gone, how does the thing we lead work? Do people celebrate our absence and revel in the chance to do it differently? Or do they carry on doing the same stuff they probably would have done if we were there? As long as their motives for doing the same stuff I might have expected or cooperated on aren’t fear-based, I think it speaks volumes.’

  4. And the most painful part is the autocratic leader (and commentators, other managers, etc.) can now look back and interpret the collapse after their departure as a sign of their great leadership instead of as a sign of their leadership shortcomings. So the cycle continues…

  5. Great post Doug and real food for thought. As a Forest fan, I would have to observe the legacy of an autocrat can be very long-lasting (ours left in ’93 and we’re yet to recover!).

    Of course a key issue here is trust. When leaders trust their people to take decisions based on their own best judgement – rather than just on what they have been told – businesses get a whole load of benefits…. from innovation to genuine responsiveness to customers’ needs, and there are many more. Sadly we seem to have spent decades building structures and cultures based on command-n-control and supervision, not on trusting each other.

    1. Hello Phil – how are you? Thanks for popping by it’s great to hear from you. I feel your football pain – though my lot never climbed that high in the first place!

      I agree with you on the trust thing. People talk about that a lot – and something you’ve mentioned here which is really important and not addressed as often, is the responsiveness point. I think the manner and speed of response we get as customers, suppliers, service users etc is a really good sign of how a business treats its employees. And yes – sadly we have invested rather a lot of time money and effort in trying to control and supervise, that will take some unlearning I fear….still, got to start somewhere.

      Cheers – Doug

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