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.


I should have done more

When I was at school in the 1970s I won a prize, the inaugural Bruce McCallum Memorial Prize for spoken French. Bruce was a fellow pupil of mine at school who wasn’t well and he sadly passed away a few months before the prize giving. I remember his funeral well. The place was packed and lots of us school boys lined the pathway in the church grounds. Bruce suffered more than his fair share of bullying when he was alive and sadly, a few kids in the line persisted in their rudeness even on this sad day. I remember thinking I should do something about this. I asked some of the kids to shut up and got told where to stick it. I didn’t have the bottle to do any more and just stood there feeling awkward. On the day I received the prize I was introduced to his parents and felt quite overwhelmed. Overwhelmed that I’d won something and overwhelmed at my memory of Bruce’s funeral day and the fact that I didn’t do enough. I’ve still got the prize, a copy of David Attenborough’s Life on Earth.

HR should have done more

Back in 2002, as an up and coming manager in BT I was on the receiving end of persistent bullying from my manager. He undermined me, threatened to sack me, was rude to me, and regularly put me down in front of my peers and customers. This went on for months and months. To this day I don’t know why he did it, and I do know that it hurt, badly. I was so undermined, my confidence almost completely crushed. I’d spoken with the bully many times about his behaviour and on each occasion he tried to dismiss it as me over reacting. I’d been to speak with his manager and to HR a couple of times to ask for help, and been told to resolve it with the bully directly. Through all this I was fortunate to have another manager in the business offering me some support. It was helpful to talk and with his reassurance, I finally went to HR and the guy’s manager together – poured out the whole story and put it to them that if they didn’t intervene I was going to go off work sick and take out a grievance against the guy. To this day I’m not proud of what I said but I felt backed into a dark, dark corner. I felt desperate. I got moved to another team and got on with enjoying my work. On reflection I have found the experience very helpful as I now know what it its like to be on the receiving end of persistent unwelcome behaviour. It’s important to learn from these things if we can. The bully left the country shortly after HRs eventual intervention; I think he still works for the company.

They are doing something

There has been a recent case of bullying at my daughter’s school. Since the victim found the courage to speak up, the school has been dealing with her sympathetically and talking with the bullies and the whole school about bullying being unacceptable and the importance of speaking up about bullying. I am pleased the school has both the systems and the pastoral caring attitude in place to feel able to address this unpleasantness.

Deafened by the roar of mice. #bannatynegate

I’ve been fascinated by the recent row sparked by Duncan Bannatyne who tried to spoil the good name of the XpertHR business by throwing around unsubstantiated allegations on Twitter. Here are a few screen shots of the emerging Twitter row which show:

8th March 2011 – unsubstantiated allegations of dishonesty made by Bannatyne to XpertHR.

Bannatyne Twitter Feed 8th March 2011

8th March 2011 – when challenged by Ailsa Suttie, queen of all roaring mice, and Deadbeat Mum, aka wonder woman (who messes with super heroes?), Bannatyne becomes rankled and says he will post evidence of XpertHR’s dishonesty the following day.

Bannatyne Twitter Feed 8th March 2011

9th March 2011 – nothing. No evidence presented by Bannatyne

10th March 2011 – Bannatyne is reminded of his promise to produce evidence, he becomes irritable (more than usual) and no evidence is provided.

Bannatyne 10th March 2011

Bannatyne 10th March 2011 2

11th March onwards – Bannatyne blocks everyone and anyone in and around the #connectinghr community who continues to remind him of his pledge. No evidence is provided.

12th March 2011 onwards, the silence continues.

What have I learned from this collection of experiences? Once folk take a stand and speak out it is much more difficult for the bully to continue to operate. Openness doesn’t suit the modus operandi of a bully.

If you would like to make a comment or tell a story about bullying in general please do so. If you wish to comment on #bannatynegate please pop over to Ailsa’s blog and we can keep all the action in one place.

photo c/o annavanna

Update: 23 May 2011. This post gets lots of views. Today Ben Eubanks tweeted a link to this interesting short piece on bullying. I wanted to add a link to it to keep things flowing:

I hope this is useful for you.