During my 15-year long leadership career, I have encountered many leadership styles. The Bureaucratic leadership style has both pros and cons and is worth understanding a bit better. Even though it sounds both outdated and boring, it can be put to good use.
What is Bureaucratic Leadership Style?
The Bureaucratic leadership style is characterized by rigid rules, standardized processes, stiff division of labor, and responsibility. Decisions are taken in a strict and often pyramid based hierarchy. A bureaucratic leadership style works best in organizations such as military, public and governmental entities where regulations and standards are of great importance, and each person has a precise and specialized role and scope of work. However, in a bureaucratic leadership setting, creativity is hampered, competition and development are hardly existing, and flexibility and change capabilities are inferior.
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In this article, we explain the definition of bureaucratic leadership style, the pros and cons of this leadership style, personal experiences of bureaucracies during my career, and finally, we will give a few examples of bureaucratic leaders. You can also go directly to our Infographic summary of the bureaucratic leadership style.
If you are in a rush or prefer watching a video on bureaucratic leadership instead, please check out the video below. Remember, the video only contains a fraction of the information in this article, so do keep reading after watching.
Have you heard the phrase “cutting through the bureaucratic red tape”? Touted as one of the least effective leadership styles, bureaucratic leadership has gotten a bad rap as being restrictive and filled with unnecessary systems and processes. However, it does have a place. There are elements of this less preferred leadership style that demonstrate valuable lessons about the importance of structure. These are lessons that you should learn if you want to be a successful leader.
The article continues below this Infographic summary.
Bureaucratic Leadership Style – Infographic Summary
What is Bureaucratic Leadership?
Max Weber coined the term bureaucratic leadership in 1947 to describe an efficient way to set up large organizations. (Buy his book at this Amazon link if you are interested: Economy and Society: A New Translation.) Weber defined this leadership style as “an organizational structure that is characterized by many rules, standardized processes, procedures and requirements, number of desks, the meticulous division of labor and responsibility, clear hierarchies and professional, almost impersonal interactions between employees.” Think systems, structure, top-down control, and processes when picturing bureaucratic leadership. Communication is often classic Downward Communication. (Weber also defined the charismatic leadership style as part of the same framework.)
Sociologist George Ritzer took Weber’s concept of bureaucracy a step further by developing the concept of McDonaldization. In essence, Ritzer frames bureaucracy as a rational way to approach decision-making and the development of society. He used McDonald’s as a point of reference because of the inherent bureaucratic structure in their business model.
McDonaldization has four components: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control. Efficiency refers to a reduction in the time it takes to complete a task. Calculability applies to delivering large amounts of product to a customer in the shortest possible time. Predictability indicates that the customer will receive the same service and quality, regardless of the branch of the business they visit. Control refers to the standardization of employees; the duties of employees remain the same across each company location. These four components describe bureaucracy in a nutshell. (Here is a link to Ritzer’s book on McDonaldization at Amazon: The McDonaldization of Society: Into the Digital Age)
Those against bureaucracy argue that it stifles innovation and business growth. If bureaucracy is applied rigidly, this might be true. However, an effective leader knows how to extract the useful elements of bureaucracy to build efficient systems that add fuel to innovation instead of stifling it.
Bureaucratic leadership has been essential to govern larger entities, countries, companies, and empires – especially in the older days when communication was much more challenging than today. If you are interested in bureaucratic leadership from a historical perspective, you might want to check out this book available at Amazon: Empires and Bureaucracy in World History: From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century.
Bear in mind that bureaucratic leadership is one of many styles. Refer to our main article for many more leadership styles.
What are the Pros and Cons of Bureaucratic Leadership?
Picture a straight line. There are no curves, dents, or room for flexibility. This line represents bureaucratic leadership at its core. The fundamental characteristics of this leadership style have its advantages and disadvantages.
The Advantages of Bureaucratic Leadership
1. It’s relatively easy to separate jobs from the relationships
Bureaucratic leaders focus on sticking to processes and systems that work. The process and results matter more than the relationship. This impersonal approach means that relationships don’t cloud the team’s ability to achieve results. Favoritism is uncommon. This emphasis on process and result is also common for transactional leadership.
2. Each person has a clearly defined role within the organization
Each employee is hired as a specialist to carry out specific tasks in a particular capacity. In case of staff shortage, there may be occasions where employees are asked to carry out multiple roles. However, the general rule of thumb is for employees to remain with their specialized duties. Sticking to a specific job scope also makes it easier for management to carry out performance appraisals.
3. It works well for organizations that must follow strict regulations and standards
Rigid structures and processes are necessary for organizations in certain industries. For instance, organizations in the food processing industry must meet the requirements for safe food handling, packaging, and distribution. Therefore, their internal processes must consistently meet those requirements adequately.
When it comes to government organizations for instance, bureaucratic leadership has additional importance. Government decisions should often be strictly based on rules, regulations, and processes. Whether a refugee gets asylum should not be up to the person involved as a decision-maker, but rather based on the system and its rules. This strict adherence to regulations ensures equal treatment without personal judgment, at least in theory.
4. Bureaucratic leadership can be very efficient
If you work in an organization large enough to benefit from a specialized bureaucracy, it can become very efficient. Since everybody is a specialist within their field, and the tasks are broken down into predefined activities – a large volume of jobs can be performed in a relatively short amount of time. However, this requires the organization to be big enough to have people that are purely working with “vacation pay”, “rescheduling travel bookings”, “coding credit invoices” etc. In many real-life organizations, the workforce is so small that it must be versatile and cover a vast scope. In such a situation, this high degree of specialization and a detailed break down of specific tasks is likely impossible, and the efficiency would not materialize as intended. Please read our article on transactional leadership, a style related to bureaucratic leadership but more focused on repetition, rewards, and punishments.
Disadvantages of Bureaucratic Leadership
1. Creativity is limited – this can jeopardize productivity improvement
Team members must carry out tasks in the way stipulated by the organization and its’ rules. This adherence to rules stifles creativity significantly since thinking out of the box is unwanted. Productivity suffers as team members spend more time trying to meet requirements rather than coming up with new ideas on how to perform their tasks in a better, smarter, and faster way. This low level of freedom and suppression of creativity can lower team morale and result in high employee turnover. Consider democratic leadership or even laissez-faire leadership if you want to maximize creativity. (You can read about the productivity tools I personally use here: Recommended productivity tools.)
2. Competition is discouraged
Clearly defined responsibilities limit the scope of team members. Each team member is expected to specialize and remain within the realm of what the job entails. The only room for competition and career advancement is through meeting the requirements to move up the career ladder. Daily operations focus on sticking to a routine; venturing outside of this routine is discouraged and frowned upon
3. Adapting to change is difficult and slow
Bureaucratic leaders often find it challenging to adapt to change. The whole point of bureaucracy is to create a system that works the same way all the time. However, that’s not the way the world works. Our world and societies are dynamic, which makes the need to be flexible even more critical. Consider adaptive leadership as an opposite approach here.
If these disadvantages disqualify bureaucratic leadership for you, then you should read our main article to see if there are other styles that fit you better: Leadership Styles explained. If you are overly bureaucratic, you should consider building a leadership development plan that counters those things, perhaps with a more creative approach as a goal.
When should Bureaucratic Leadership be used?
Bureaucratic leadership is best used in government agencies, such as the military, where structure, stringent policies and top-down order is essential. Large organizations where there is a top-down leadership structure can also benefit from bureaucratic leadership. Nevertheless, there are some elements of bureaucracy that you can apply to your leadership practices, regardless of the type of organization you are a member of.
- Have a clear job description for all team members. You may require them to be flexible enough to take on additional roles. However, there should be a clear indication of each team member’s core responsibilities.
- Conduct performance appraisals objectively using clearly outlined job descriptions as a guide.
- Encourage merit-based promotions based on performance and job requirements so that nepotism and favoritism are non-existent in your organization.
- Document procedures and processes that need to be repeated so that everyone in the organization is clear about what should be done. This also helps with continuity when someone new enters the organization.
- Be very clear on authorization and approval rules so that people know which decisions are within their power and which ones need escalation. Define the escalation levels as well as the authorized approval roles within the organization.
- Use it in areas where it is needed from a governance standpoint, such as finance department, contracts etc. but don’t use it in the areas where creativity is a must.
The next chapter includes a few real life experiences of bureaucratic leadership. If you prefer reading about a more flexible, engaging and innovative, read our article on democratic leadership as well or go to the main article with all the leadership styles.
Bureaucratic leadership – in my own experience
A certain level of bureaucracy exists in most, if not all, organizations. However, having some bureaucracy in your organization doesn’t mean you apply a bureaucratic leadership style. Remember, bureaucracy is the very essence of bureaucratic leadership, not just a small part of it. Since I have spent pretty much all my career in private companies, I have limited experience in organizations where bureaucratic leadership has been outspoken and dominant. Despite this, I have encountered bureaucratic leaders, and I must say that many of them have been engineers.
I will give you an example. Years ago, I was leading a proposal team on a government bid. We had different sub-streams in responding to this RFP, and an engineering team was one of them. After the engineering team had gone through the technical requirements documentation, our list of deviations was substantial, to say the least. As I didn’t want to risk losing the project, I set out to review the deviation list together with the technical managers to see if we could resolve some of them before submitting our proposal. One of the technical requirements was that the vehicle, which was being procured in this RFP, needed to have a set of features in the drivers’ cabin. One clause stated that the cabin should be big enough to fit a personal bag. The engineers had listed this as a deviation to my surprise. I asked whether the cabin really was so small that it couldn’t fit a personal bag and got the answer that the cabin was rather spacious, in fact. I found this odd since we had made a deviation on the personal bag not being able to fit in the cabin. When I brought this up, I got the answer that it was impossible to comply with this requirement since the size of the personal bag was undefined.
I finally managed to persuade the engineers that several typical bag sizes would indeed fit and that we could comply with this requirement and remove the deviation. They only agreed after I promised to take personal responsibility for making these size assumptions – a dangerous gamble in their minds. I was amazed and started wondering how our technical department ever got anything done, to be honest. Research & development work requires you to follow technical rules and standards, but you must know when to make a reasonable assumption; otherwise, the bureaucracy risks killing both flexibility and creativity. Also, there has to be room for some visionary leadership within R&D.
On the other side, there have also been cases during my career when lack of bureaucracy has been a significant problem, and that is often related to people taking shortcuts when it comes to contract requirements and financial arrangements. In some cases, this lack of willingness to follow bureaucratic rules has resulted in significant liabilities and people getting fired for breaking essential rules. This lack of control leads me to describe a few areas where a certain level of bureaucratic leadership can do good, or even be a requirement. Do bear in mind that you can switch between many leadership styles and do not have to commit to using only one completely.
Examples of where bureaucratic leadership is good
As experience have taught me, there must be a certain level of bureaucracy in most processes, and especially so in the following areas:
- Financial department, book keeping and reporting. This is regulated by laws and accounting principles. You must adhere to them. The employees should be discouraged from an inventive approach in this area.
- Contracts. This is an area where many a sales person could use a bit more bureaucracy. Terms of payment, terms of delivery, warranty arrangements and commercial contracts is not something you play around with. You adhere to the procedures specified for you.
- Manufacturing. Stick to the drawings, weld as you are directed to, test the products as specified and required etc.
Please note that all of the above areas, besides perhaps the first one, deserve to be questioned, challenged, and brought up for discussion when it comes to improvement and change. This is fine, but it has to be done according to some protocol. A salesperson should not make up his or her own contract or make changes on the fly. An assembly worker should not use some other bolts that were lying close by.
Changes should be made in a proper way where they can be qualified, certified, and then introduced sensibly, not ad hoc. (Refer to adaptive leadership for inspiration.)
The problem with full-on bureaucratic leadership is that this healthy level of questioning and innovation to instill continuous improvement isn’t there. Change is regarded as a problem, primarily.
This rigidity of the bureaucratic leadership style leads me back to using multiple leadership styles in different areas and with different people. Either push bureaucratic leadership in these processes but create forums and opportunities where innovation is stimulated and welcomed by applying democratic leadership, for instance. Or perhaps ensure complete bureaucracy among the bookkeepers but let a few other individuals in the finance department do the innovation. There are ways of getting the strengths of bureaucracy where they are needed and couple that with excellent innovation at other times or in other areas.
Please share your thoughts on bureaucratic leadership and your experience of it in the comment section further down, below the examples of famous bureaucratic leaders.
If you want to learn more about leadership, check out our main article on leadership styles which has more than a dozen styles to choose from.
Who Are Some Famous Examples of Bureaucratic Leaders?
Let us finish this article with a few examples of bureaucratic leaders. Our collection include CEO’s and a few famous politicians.
Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – Former British Prime Minister
Churchill depended on structures and systems to get things done. He was decisive and determined to follow through with his plans to overcome the Russians and the Nazis during World War II. He also paid keen attention to details and wanted to be regularly updated about everything that was happening in the government and warzone. He is also known for charismatic leadership.
Alfred Sloan (1875-1966)- Former CEO of General Motors (GM)
Although Sloan emphasized procedures and rules, he also created an environment for creativity and innovation that helped GM become a leading automotive company. Decisions were made within the hierarchy and didn’t sway from Sloan’s carefully developed structure.
Shinji Sogō (1884-1981)- Fourth President of the Japanese National Railways
Sogō was instrumental in the execution of Japan’s first bullet train project. He was very methodological, creating a plan to use a standard gauge railway system that had few supporters at the time. He stuck to the plan as well as the rules and routines that it required. The result was a bullet train that has been described as one of the world’s most remarkable engineering and logistical feats. His conviction, ambition and bureaucratic principles helped him achieve great success. I dare to say some visionary leadership might have been part of it as well.
Harold Geneen (1910-1997) – Former CEO of the ITT Corporation
Geneen’s work has inspired several medium-sized firms to grow into multinational corporations with subsidiaries across industries and countries. His most noteworthy success was with the International Telephone and Telegraph (ITT) Corporation which he grew into a billion-dollar company. Strong systems and processes helped him create this success. The traditional hierarchical bureaucratic model was evident throughout the organization and Geneen closely monitored how finances were managed in the main company and its subsidiaries. Creating a framework that achieved results was what Geneen valued.
Colin Powell (1937 – present)- American politician, four star general and former Secretary of State
Powell learnt his bureaucratic skills through the military. He believed in creating a system that makes success more likely and creates a more efficient organization. The power of each team member’s specialized role was also highly valued by Powell. He fervently believed in helping people clearly understand their roles and equipping them with what they needed to get the work done, which one could say are aspects of coaching leadership or the equivalent.
Steve Easterbrook (1967 – present)- Former CEO of McDonalds
Easterbrook became the President and CEO of McDonald’s in 2015 and was lauded for nearly doubling the company’s share price and saving it from decline. This success is partly attributable to his strong combination of bureaucratic and charismatic leadership. He maintained McDonald’s rigid franchising model which stipulates that each franchisee must uphold the rigid rules and regulations set by the parent company so that the brand is maintained. He also kept a close eye on what was happening with the franchisees and maintained McDonald’s hierarchical model.
Please share your thoughts on bureaucratic leadership. Do you have any questions? Any interesting perspective? Please share in the comment section! Thirsty for more knowledge on how to lead – go to our main article on leadership styles.
What is another name for Bureaucratic Leadership?
Bureaucratic leadership is by far the most common term used for this leadership style. However, the original name that Weber gave to it was actually “legal authority”. Just to complicate it, bureaucratic leadership is also known as “Rational-legal leadership”.
I have also seen a few examples where Bureaucratic leadership has been mistaken for transactional leadership, which is another leadership style although with strong similarities between them.
If you are interested in other leadership styles, go to our main article on leadership styles.
Bureaucratic Leadership – Books
In case you want to read additionally about bureaucratic leadership, the following books might interest you. (All links go to Amazon so you can easily read more about the book and it’s availability.)
Books on Bureaucratic Leadership
The original work on leadership styles by Max Weber focuses on three leadership styles, of which one is the rational-legal style, i.e. bureaucratic leadership style: Economy and Society: A New Translation.
George Ritzer wrote a book on the bureaucratic parts of society where he coined the concept of McDonaldization: The McDonaldization of Society: Into the Digital Age.
This book is about Bureaucratic leadership from a historic perspective and how it has enabled empires to be governed: Empires and Bureaucracy in World History:From Late Antiquity to the Twentieth Century.
If you want additional tips on good books for learning leadership, check out our article here: The Best Books for Leaders and Managers.
If you are interested in other leadership styles, go to our main article on leadership styles.