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Bureaucratic Leadership Explained by a CEO!

Updated July 12, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

As a CEO, I have encountered bureaucratic leadership many times during my leadership career. Bureaucratic leadership has both pros and cons and is worth understanding a bit better. Even though Bureaucratic Leadership sounds both outdated and boring, it can be put to good use, as I will explain in this article, including pros, cons, and a few examples.

What is Bureaucratic Leadership?

Bureaucratic leadership is characterized by rigid rules, high standardization, and stiff division of labor. Bureaucratic leadership works best in organizations where regulations and standards are of great importance. Bureaucratic leadership hampers change, creativity, competition, and development.

Bureaucratic Leadership

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 and it can in fact lead to high productivity and efficiency. Some elements of bureaucratic leadership demonstrate valuable lessons about the importance of structure. These are lessons that you should learn if you want to be a successful leader.

Max Weber originally defined bureaucratic leadership 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, similar to Scientific Management (Taylorism). Communication is often classic Downward Communication.

Bureaucratic leadership is characterized by:

  • Clear hierarchies, structure, and reporting lines
  • Highly standardized processes and specialized division of labor
  • Work is regulated by rules, policies, and guidelines
  • Communication via hierarchical lines

Bureaucratic leadership has been essential to governing larger entities, countries, companies, and empires – especially in the older days when communication was much more challenging than today. 

Those against bureaucracy argue that it stifles innovation and business growth[3] since it focuses so much on rules and sticking to current procedure. 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.

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 their advantages and disadvantages.

The Advantages of Bureaucratic Leadership

1. Separation of jobs and 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, which is a modernized version of bureaucratic leadership to a certain degree. (You can find articles on that style here.)

2. Clear definition of roles

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. Enables strict adherence to 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. Specialization 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 breakdown 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

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 them and other styles in our leadership styles portal.)

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. Slow adaptation to change

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.

Bureaucratic leadership fits well for some government entities where uniformity and regulations require it.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Conduct performance appraisals objectively using clearly outlined job descriptions as a guide.
  3. Encourage merit-based promotions based on performance and job requirements so that nepotism and favoritism are non-existent in your organization.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Use it in areas where it is needed from a governance standpoint, such as the 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 portal 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 has taught me, there must be a certain level of bureaucracy in most processes, and especially so in the following areas:

  • Financial department, bookkeeping, 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 salesperson could use a bit more bureaucracy. Terms of payment, terms of delivery, warranty arrangements, and commercial contracts are 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.

If you want to learn about leadership styles more focused on innovation, creativity, and change, I suggest you read our articles on transformational leadership and visionary leadership, available in our leadership styles portal.

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 article collection on leadership styles which has more than twenty-five styles to choose from.

History of Bureaucratic Leadership

Max Weber coined the term bureaucratic leadership in 1947 to describe an efficient way to set up large organizations[1]. 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, similar to Scientific Management (Taylorism). 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[2].  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. 

Examples of Bureaucratic Leaders?

Let us finish this article with a few examples of bureaucratic leaders. Our collection includes CEO’s and a few famous politicians. The following are examples of Bureaucratic Leaders.

Winston Churchill (1874-1965) – Former British Prime Minister

Churchill is an example of a bureaucratic leader as he depended on structures and systems to get things done to a high degree. 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.

Sir Winston Churchill, an example of a bureaucratic leader

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 learned 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. (Also available in our portal.)

Steve Easterbrook (1967 – present)- Former CEO of McDonald’s

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[4]. 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 site 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.

Further Reading

If you are interested in other leadership styles, go to our main article on leadership styles.


[1] https://www.toolshero.com/management/bureaucratic-theory-weber/
[2] An Introduction to McDonalidization, George Ritzer (http://sociology.morrisville.edu/readings/SOCI101/Mcdonaldization-excerpt.pdf)
[3] https://hbr.org/2014/11/bureaucracy-must-die
[4] https://time.com/5717949/why-mcdonalds-fire-ceo-steve-easterbrook/

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