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.

Tesco Terry

This morning at the CIPD 2011 conference I listened to the speech given by Sir Terry Leahy, former CEO of Tesco. Tesco’s dominance concerns me, and when he showed us the 2010 market capitalisation comparison between Tesco, Sainsbury and M&S I winced a little (so much so I blurred the photos!).

Tesco Market Capitalisation

Terry spoke sincerely and straightforwardly and afterwards I figured, if he really believes this stuff he’s telling us – then maybe I can see how Tesco has pulled so far ahead of the chasing pack. Here’s what I heard him say:

Find the truth: There’s tons of research, reports, reviews, and the more you read, the less you know. Human nature is to filter out stuff. We just need the plain simple truth, and the front line is where the knowledge is. Too often the managers in between create a culture where it’s not OK to speak the truth.

Customers are the best place for information: If you listen fine if you don’t listen that’s fine too and the customer will find a better place and buy there instead. Terry used to spend 40% of his time in stores, listening. He also mentioned listening to employees, but almost as an after thought.

Audacious goals: We spend a lot of time in work, people want to be inspired, and we want to stretch them. Work needs to be worthwhile, a big adventure.

Tesco values: We asked the staff two questions. What does Tesco stand for? What would you like Tesco to stand for? The answers: No one tries harder for customers, and respect, treat people how we like to be treated. These values came from the shop floor.

Competition is good: It keeps you honest and forces you to do better for your customers. And permanent dissent gets nothing done. So once a decision is made, we come to work and make it a reality.

Leadership: It’s not important what you do, but what you cause others to do. We have and need thousands of leaders, stepping forward, taking responsibility.

Four things that make work worthwhile: do interesting work, be treated with respect, have a chance to get on, even if people don’t want to take it, and have a boss who is a help not your biggest problem.

Creativity matters: it’s not often spoken about, and it can’t work with fear otherwise folks won’t take risks. Success and failure are two sides of the same coin.

Culture: We have a culture that rewards generosity, not self.