The Crushing Weight of Bureaucracy

When I started my corporate career, I worked for a global company led by the hard-charging CEO, Percy Barnevik.

He believed in pushing decision-making to the lowest level. His corporate mantra was, “think global, act local.” He empowered his local managers to take charge and make things happen.

As a young general manager of a manufacturing business in that company, I was thankful to be working for a CEO who understood the power of delegating authority. I had the autonomy to run my business as I saw fit so long as I got results.

I was not burdened with extraneous paperwork or monthly reporting. Instead, Barnevik kept his headquarters small and focused his senior management team on ensuring local managers had everything they needed to succeed.

As a result, we were free to do what was needed locally to get the best results – and the results were outstanding. We moved fast and, every year, we grew sales and profits.

We also had a lot of fun doing it.

In many ways, I felt like I was running my own business – except I had a large corporation backing me up. It was the most fun I ever had working as a leader in a global company.

Unfortunately, good things never last.

Barnevik eventually retired, and his replacements believed that the company had too many maverick business leaders around the world.

They felt the company needed to have a more uniform approach, so they hired more and more people on staff to coordinate this standardization. Eventually, what was once a small team at headquarters focused on supporting local businesses, became an army of bureaucrats working to control every aspect of the company.

Over the years, the company eventually stripped most of the authority from local business managers. Instead, most decisions went through the bureaucrats.

As a result of the weight of this bureaucracy, decision-making slowed down, and our growth stalled as well.

Under the weight of bureaucracy, decision-making slows down, and growth stalls as well. Click To Tweet

Faceless bureaucrats without any responsibility for the financial performance of local businesses were now in charge. They had all the authority and no accountability. The company still held local managers responsible for the financial results, but they had little power to implement the ideas to make it happen.

What was once fun became a futile battle of rules and red tape.

Frustrated, I eventually moved to another global business only to discover that the situation was even worse. There, local managers had no authority.

Frustration and apathy sat like a dark cloud over employees. Most local managers had given up trying to make things better. The faceless bureaucrats were in charge, and local managers could do nothing to change the situation. Most managers felt like they were strapped into a car with no steering wheel – they had no control.

It was the most depressing place I had ever worked.

That experience caused me to leave corporate life to start my own business.

As an entrepreneur, I once again attained the right balance of authority and responsibility. I had complete control of my business, made quick decisions, and my sales multiplied.

I also learned to have fun again.

How does this relate to your leadership journey?

It should be a reminder of your role as a leader. It’s not your job to create a bureaucracy to control every aspect of your employees’ lives. Your job is to empower your people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company.

A leader's job is to empower people to take action to accomplish the goals of the company. Click To Tweet

People enjoy freedom, and they will thrive when not faced with the crushing weight of bureaucratic processes.

Our job as leaders is to communicate the goal, establish the ground rules, and ensure our people have everything they need to succeed.

When you remove the weight of bureaucracy, your team will move faster, resulting in quicker results.

When faced with the decision to add layers of red tape, ask yourself, what would Percy do?

In my bestselling leadership book, All in the Same Boat, I tell more stories of what it was like working for a leader like Percy Barnevik.

[Photo by Wesley Tingey on Unsplash]

Let Go and Let Others Grow

You’ve probably seen this yourself – a leader with a control problem.

Many bosses would rather die than let go of the control they have on their teams. It happens with even good leaders. Managers want to make sure things go well in their departments, so they keep a tight rein on everything.

As it turns out, this creates a huge problem.

It’s one of the main reasons many start-up companies fail to grow – the founder just can’t let go of control.

In a new company, it’s understandable. When a founder starts, funds, and builds a business from scratch, it’s their baby. They want to see it grow into a fully functional adult, so they carefully manage every detail. They work 60-80 hours a week to make sure everything is perfect.

The problem is that other employees in the organization become dependent on the leader and never grow – they never get challenged.

Contrast this with my experience as a naval officer.

On a U.S. Navy submarine, the captain is responsible for ensuring each crew member is fully qualified to do their job. The captain does this through pressure-testing – putting young officers and sailors in situations beyond their current capabilities.

The captain purposely gives up control to give people a chance to gain the necessary experience under pressure.

As a young junior officer, my commanding officer once put me in charge of preparing the USS Tennessee for sea for a short, highly visible VIP cruise. I had never performed this job before and, because of the VIPs, the stakes were higher than usual.

To add additional pressure, the captain wasn’t even on board at the time. He put me in charge and left the boat.

In a critical moment in my career, he let go and gave me a chance to grow as a leader.

That day was difficult and stressful, but I credit that experience towards helping me become a better, more seasoned naval officer. I tell the whole story in a chapter called “run your ship like a captain” in my new book, All in the Same Boat.

I was thinking about this issue last week.

I had a guest on my podcast, Neel Parekh, who built a local service business remotely.

As you know, I’ve always advocated for leaders to be present. So, I was curious to learn how Neel ran his business from the road. How did he manage all the things that needed to get done in a business remotely?

He said something that stuck out, “When I put a little bit more stress on the team – when I was less available – it helped them grow faster.”

When I was less available - it helped them grow faster - Neel Parekh Click To Tweet

He said something else that stood out, “people adjust.”

He explained that if the leader is always there and always helping, people rely on them too much. But if you say, you know what? You’re in charge. I’m going to disconnect for a little while – people will make the adjustments and fill in the gaps.

If the leader is always there and always helping, people rely on them too much. Click To Tweet

When they can’t ask the leader to help them, they figure it out.

They learn how to get things done on their own without the leader.  As it turns out, our teams are always more capable than we think.

As leaders, we don’t necessarily have to be there every day, running the show, directing every detail. It’s important to step away and allow people to rise up and take responsibility as well.

Is it hard to let go as a leader? Absolutely.

But when we do, it gives our teams a chance to step up and grow.

[Photo by Antonio Lainez on Unsplash]

Why It’s a Bad Idea to Run a Ship Aground

You probably know I was a Naval Officer early in my career.

Well, did you know the Navy has a zero-tolerance policy for running a ship aground?

That’s the funny thing about the Navy. They want their billion-dollar warships operating in liquids, not solids. If there’s a collision, usually the Officer of the Deck AND the Captain both lose their jobs.

And get this. Even if the Captain wasn’t standing watch at the time, he or she is still liable.

You’re probably thinking, how is that fair?

How is it fair that the Captain, who isn’t even driving the boat or giving orders at the time, can still be liable if something bad happens?

Well, the answer deals with how the Navy views responsibility.

In the Navy, the Captain is fully responsible for everything that happens onboard. If the ship runs aground, ultimately, it’s the Captain’s fault for not training the crew and supervising them properly.

This is how the Navy viewed responsibility.

As a Naval Officer, we were always taught that you can delegate authority but you can never delegate responsibility.

You can delegate authority but you can never delegate responsibility. Click To Tweet

What does that mean?

It means, you can give people under your command the authority to get something done but if anything goes wrong, the leader is ultimately responsible for everything that happens on their watch.

They are responsible for everything that happens under their command – good or bad.

If a ship runs aground, the Captain will have to answer for it.

Because of this reason, U.S. Navy Captains take the job of training and developing their crews very seriously.

They require competent teams because they are literally staking their career on it.

So, let’s contrast this with Corporate America.

In most companies, I see the opposite behavior. I see bosses who regularly delegate responsibility but they keep all the authority to themselves.

I see bosses who regularly delegate responsibility but they keep all the authority to themselves. Click To Tweet

Employees aren’t given the authority to get things done but they are still held accountable for the results. If anything goes wrong, it’s usually the employee who takes all the blame.

…and the boss never faces any consequences.

You’re probably shaking your head in agreement right now. I’m sure you’ve seen this behavior as well. Bad bosses tend to delegate responsibility but not authority.

And this is incredibly frustrating for employees.

When authority and responsibility are not in balance, employees are left discouraged and disillusioned.

So, think about your organization.

How are you dealing with these two important aspects of leadership?

Are you using the Navy model where you delegate authority but not responsibility?

Or, are you following the Corporate America model where you delegate responsibility but not authority?

How you manage these two leadership aspects is the difference between engaged employees who love their jobs or those who are frustrated and are looking to leave.

I talk about this issue in a lot more detail on the latest episode of the Deep Leadership podcast.

Deep Leadership Podcast


P.S. If you like this leadership concept and you want to learn more, get a copy of my latest book – I Have the Watch: Becoming a Leader Worth Following. It’s filled with 23 practical ideas like this on how you can become a more effective leader.

leadership book