The Difference Between Decisive and Dictatorial Leadership

As a logophile, one of the things I love about words is that — get this — they mean things.

Profound, I know. I’ll give you a moment to recover from that.

OK, now that you’ve caught your breath after that devastatingly insightful opening thought, let’s continue. (And yes, I’m saying that with my tongue planted firmly in my cheek.)

What sometimes happens is that folks will use all sorts of different words to try to reframe and redefine what something is or what something means. Or they’ll just use a word that doesn’t actually mean what they’re using it to mean.

For example, and with apologies to Alanis Morissette, ironic doesn’t mean some coincidental thing that you find humorous or irritating or something. Ironic actually refers to something that is the opposite of, or a reversal of, what you think is supposed to happen or what you expect to happen. So while “Ironic” certainly made for an infectious pop melody, Morissette’s assertion that wedding day precipitation was ironic was, in fact, not.

If it’s matrimony-themed irony you seek, you could consider the just-married bride who faked her own death so well that her husband despaired and then actually did kill himself; after which, the aforementioned, not-actually-dead bride woke up to find that her husband — thinking his new wife had killed herself — had done the same. That, my friends, is irony. Twisted irony, but irony nonetheless. (Hey, don’t blame me. Blame Shakespeare.)

Here’s an example from the leadership realm. In a comment on a post I wrote within which I briefly discussed leaders who bully people, a reader said something along the lines of “One man’s bully is another man’s determined leader.” Now, I won’t bore you with the entirety of my reply here, but the gist of my response was that no, one man’s bully isn’t another man’s determined leader because those two words — bully and determined — mean very different things. By definition, a determined leader would be one who is showing resoluteness. Firmness of purpose. Strength of character. Resolve. A bullying leader, again by definition, would use his/her power, authority, influence, or position to intimidate, coerce, threaten, harass, strong-arm, and so on. The two words are not synonymous.

With that in mind — and by “that,” I’m referring not to the Shakespearean irony mentioned above, but rather to the whole words mean things idea — there’s some pushback I get from time to time when talking about certain aspects of leadership; and it’s usually something somewhat akin to what I described in the previous paragraph. Not only is what I’m about to describe used as pushback, though; it’s also often used as rationalization for poor leadership, and sometimes it’s even used as rationalization by poor leaders themselves.

The thing I’ve heard from on occasion is that what many are perceiving to be dictatorial or tyrannical or authoritarian leadership is actually, in reality, just those leaders being what they like to call “decisive” (or proactive, or whatever; for the sake of example, we’ll stick with “decisive”).

Now here’s where the definitions of words come in handy.

You see, those two words don’t mean the same thing.

Being decisive is not the same thing as being dictatorial. Leaders desiring to act decisively need not behave dictatorially in order to do so. A leader can be decisive without being dictatorial.

A leader can be decisive without being dictatorial. #leadership Click To Tweet

When leaders are described as dictatorial (or authoritarian, or tyrannical, or huge jerks, or whatever), there are usually behaviors and attitudes that have led folks to characterize their leadership in that manner. Dictatorial leaders are the ones who walk around like they’re the emperors of the organization.

Dictatorial leaders are more concerned with being perceived as good leaders than they are with actually leading well.

Dictatorial leaders may pay lip service to collaboration and teamwork and culture and all that jazz (especially the politically-savvy emperors), but underneath it all, dictatorial leaders are more enamored with being perceived as the type of leader who embraces those things than they are with actually, truly embracing those things.

Dictatorial leaders are more concerned with appearances than actually leading well. #leadership Click To Tweet

Dictatorial leaders are power-oriented.

So naturally, they’re going to be spending time and conversations on forming alliances, consolidating power bases, and wining and dining people with whom they feel they need to maintain influence in order to strengthen their stranglehold on power.

Dictatorial leaders focus on ego and image.

Ever seen pictures of Hitler’s rallies? Mussolini’s? Dictatorial leaders often have this odd fixation on themselves that manifests as an unquenchable narcissism. They want to be worshipped. They want to be envied.

Dictatorial leaders focus on ego and image. They want to be envied. #leadership Click To Tweet

There is a clear division between dictatorial leaders and their teams.

Their teams are beneath them. Sometimes this will even come out in the silliest ways, but the dictatorial leader often feels the need to remind the team that he/she is, in fact, the boss and should be treated differently than they.

Dictatorial leaders will communicate their power, control, and positional authority in multiple ways.

It could be emails. It could be their office. It could be passive-aggressive threats. It could be any number of things, but rest assured, it’ll happen.

Dictatorial leaders demean, intimidate, and even pout.

(If you can ever catch one of these dictatorial types pouting, it’s adorable.)

Dictatorial leaders are often very arbitrary, acting and managing according to their mood or whim.

So while they’re usually dictatorial, it’s hard to know exactly what that’s going to look like from day to day. There’s no consistency.

Dictatorial leaders are coercive and punitive.

If they don’t get what they want, they’ll find a way to get what they want. And no, that last sentence was not a mistake.

Dictatorial leaders may ask for input from their subordinates, but it’s often just a formality.

Often, they’ve either made up their minds already, or they plan to meet separately with a different, smaller group of people who support them, after which they make the decision they wanted to make all along.

Dictatorial leaders mistake rashness for decisiveness. 

(Pssst…remember…words mean things.)

Dictatorial leaders mistake rashness for decisiveness. #leadership Click To Tweet

Dictatorial leaders micromanage.

Now at this point you’re probably thinking to yourself, “Oh my gosh. This post is going to be ridiculously long if he still has to go through all the characteristics of the decisive leader!”

Well first, it’s already too long. (But thanks for hanging in there! We’re almost done.)

But here, again, is the joy of words, and why I felt it necessary to write this post.

While terms like dictatorial or authoritarian or tyrannical leadership, by definition, encompass a particular grouping of several leadership behaviors and/or characteristics; being decisive really isn’t terribly complicated.

Being decisive, simply put, is the ability to make decisions, bring situations to their resolutions, and so on.

That’s it.

Please note what’s not in that definition. It doesn’t stipulate whether decisiveness can only occur within a particularly aggressive or autocratic leadership style. There’s nothing in the definition that states that in order for leaders to possess the quality of decisiveness, they must unilaterally make decisions, overrule their teams, act rashly, ignore their teams’ suggestions, or anything like that.

None of that is part of what decisiveness actually means.

So you see, there’s really no rational or logical basis for the assertion that somehow what most folks are perceiving as a leader being dictatorial is actually just that leader being decisive. The two are simply not synonymous.

That’s why it’s nonsense when poor leadership is rationalized away as leaders “just being decisive.” Or “proactive.” Or [insert your word of choice here]. Like many of you, I’ve had people tell me that. More than once, as a matter of fact. They were just being more “hands on,” or “proactive,” or “decisive” than people were used to.

That’s why I think it’s ok, and necessary, even, to respond to those sorts of rationalizations with something like “No, being decisive means someone is able to make choices confidently and bring things to resolution. It doesn’t have anything to do with [whatever leadership behavior or behaviors you’re actually discussing].”

So leaders, by all means, be decisive. But please, please, please don’t convince yourself that any of the things listed as characteristics of the dictatorial leadership style are simply a matter of leaders exercising decisiveness. Because they aren’t.

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