In the historical, yet fictional movie The Mutiny on the Bounty Spencer Christian and crew cast out the autocratic Captain Bligh and commandeered the ship. Bligh is then punished for his appalling leadership while Christian and his cronies end their days cavorting with natives of a South Pacific island paradise.

Yet actually, in real life most of the mutineers were caught and hanged.  And after a few self-indulgent years, their native hosts killed Mr. Christian and the remaining sailors. Ironically, Captain Bligh survived a grueling return trip to England and was rewarded with command of other voyages for the British admiralty (two of which resulted in mutinies, but that’s another story).

  •  Lesson one? Don’t believe everything you see in movies.
  • Lesson two? Take care when you replace a dictatorial leader.

Many leaders believe that authoritarian leadership is obsolete and are convinced that a more engaging approach yields the best results. Yet a large percentage of executives act according to authoritarian principles: They employ top down directives underpinned by a belief that people need to be driven, often by fear.

So what if you are a member of the ‘participatory club’ asked to replace a member of the ‘command-and-control camp?’ You might think it’s as easy as liberating prisoners from a long and brutal detention. But that’s hardly the case, whether you are replacing a long-term CEO or were recently promoted as a new supervisor.

Hallmarks of corporate dictatorships

While it’s difficult to transform organizations led previously by autocrats, they are easy to recognize. First, workers are highly dependent on the boss. The office may buzz with activity, but nothing meaningful happens without the boss’s say-so.

Second, workers identify chiefly within their function or department, which acts as a buffer from criticism. Departments expend more energy justifying their existence and casting blame than collaboratively solving problems with other groups.

Third, employees tell customers “sorry, I can’t do that” more than “let me see how I can make it happen.” In other words, people are afraid to innovate or bend the rules to provide great customer service.

Before Empowerment, Seek Achievement

The biggest mistake new leaders make is to assume that flattening hierarchies and immediately ‘empowering’ people will lead to increased innovation or collaboration. While the organization charts may be compressed and wider authority authorized, people will continue to behave as they had before. Why?

Empowering a workforce that is downtrodden is like telling a depressed person to cheer up – a pretty sentiment that seldom works. Rather, the leader should first encourage and recognize individual accomplishment. By building peoples’ sense of potency based on specific achievements, workers will become more confident. Only then will they begin to innovate and take reasonable risks they hadn’t dared to before.

Likewise, asking people to collaborate with others before they deeply experience their own personal accomplishments is like demanding a child share a new toy before she has learned to enjoy it by herself.  It might happen, but expect some whining…

Vive L’ Resistance

The second biggest mistake new leaders make when succeeding an autocrat is bringing outside people into key roles too quickly. His or her tacit assumption that no one internally has the fortitude to act in a ‘counter-cultural’ manner is incorrect.

What these leaders fail to realize is that every organization ruled by an autocrat cultivates an underground of highly capable individuals who get the work done despite the regime.  Unfortunately, these able cadres are also usually cynical and disenfranchised, with identities and unwritten rules that make dealing with them difficult, if not aversive.

Yet imagine, these folk stuck it out but haven’t bought into feeling powerless. They continued to serve their customers despite the lack of support. They love the firm, but can’t stand the way it’s been run.  Have you ever been in that situation? I know I have.

The leader should identify, re-enlist and enfranchise these unacknowledged heroes to unleash the true talent and value hidden in the organization, recognizing like Dorothy, that there’s no place like home.

There is nothing wrong with seeding an organization with new perspectives and talent, but it often takes years for outsiders to establish the crucial, yet often intangible benefits that capable insiders provide.

As the Bounty’s mutineers well knew, Tahiti is an easy-living, beautiful island. Likewise, it might seem easy to inherit a team that recently operated under an authoritarian boss. But like Fletcher Christian found out, it’s not as easy as it sounds.