Although there are various leadership styles that you can adopt as a business owner, bureaucratic leadership is ideal for companies operating in a highly-controlled environment.
Defined by its adherence to authority, structure and strict systems, it is also well suited to organisations that require little innovation or imagination from its employees. Indeed, it relies heavily on the development and implementation of carefully constructed frameworks to support critical business functions, meaning that any deviation from the overall outline could ultimately cause a bureaucratic structure to fail.
Examples of Bureaucratic Leadership
To demonstrate how this management method works in context, we've compiled a brief list of five bureaucratic leaders, each of whom perfectly illustrate the concept.
1. Steve Easterbrook
One of the world's first truly iconic brands, McDonald's didn't become the fast-food behemoth it is today without a defined form of leadership driving it forward. Although there has been a long line of colourful CEOs present throughout its history – such as Ray Kroc, immortalised by Michael Keaton in 2016's The Founder – Steve Easterbrook is the most recent.
Indeed, sociologist George Ritzer coined the term "McDonaldization" in his 1993 book, The McDonaldization of Society, for this very reason. At the core of its operating strategy, McDonald's focuses on being an industry leader while continuously developing a global presence through its franchising programme. Through efficiency, calculability, standardised predictability, and overall control, Easterbrook's McDonald's has created and consolidated a specific culture that permeates down to each restaurant location – a mantra that will surely be continued by his successor, Chris Kempczinski. Consequently, when a new entrepreneur opts to buy a franchise from the company, they are expected to adhere to the rigid rules and regulations that are already in place.
By maintaining such a robust bureaucratic structure, McDonald's – and the quality of the McDonald's brand – remains consistent on a global scale. All employees accomplish tasks at an optimal pace, meet quantifiable sales objectives for set timeframes, and deliver the standardised "McDonald's experience", including staff uniforms, kitchen processes, and levels of customer service.
2. Harold Geneen
As president of the International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT), Harold Sydney Geneen was a prime example of a bureaucratic leader; he was also able to utilise this style to transform his company into a hugely successful multinational corporation.
Although Geneen's corporate structure was notorious, it generated over $7bn in profits during his tenure – a success based heavily upon the implementation of a carefully cultivated operating framework.
Indeed, this fundamental concept of bureaucratic management was evident across many critical areas of ITT, beginning with a strict hierarchical outline that employees were expected to adhere to. The organisation was then broken down into tiered departments, where each worker was aware of their place within the company and remained in that specific role.
Although it's not guaranteed that such an inflexible approach would work today, Geneen's success proves that, when a given configuration is consistently efficacious, the need for company-wide innovation is no longer necessary.
3. Alfred P Sloan
Appointed General Motors' (GM) chairman of the board in 1937, Alfred P Sloan was a bureaucratic leader that genuinely pushed the management boundaries of the style. Although he primarily relied on a specific framework to support the functioning of his company, he still fostered the creative and innovative minds of the people within it. This was rooted in his passion for running the organisation in a rational yet (then) modern manner; in adopting this approach, he revolutionised not just GM, but the motor vehicle industry in general.
As with the other leaders on this list, Sloan favoured a strict form of hierarchy throughout the various departments of the company. In addition, any risks taken on behalf of GM were carefully calculated, never straying from the boundaries set by his own meticulously crafted structure. His approach, in combination with a firm belief in corporate culture, led to the development and expansion of the business, with historian Harold Livesay even claiming that Sloan "bureaucratised the entrepreneurial function".
4. Shinji Sogō
The fourth president of Japanese National Railways (JNR), Shinji Sogō is one of the best examples of a bureaucratic leader revolutionising their organisation. It is thanks to him that the dangan ressha (or "bullet train") – previously viewed as an ambitious and perhaps unachievable project – came to fruition. Through perseverance, a resolute control of the JNR, and a calculated efficiency from the project's inception to its completion, the dream of the bullet train was able to manifest as a reality.
The idea was important to Sogō, as he insisted on adopting a standard gauge railway system despite opposition from within the company and the wider general industry. Backed by his convictions, though, he devised a plan to present to the Japanese government and was able to secure funding for the project.
Under his strict guidance and compliance to standards and procedures, the entire process was completed on time, confirming the completion of one of the world's most remarkable engineering and logistical feats. Sogō's contribution is still commemorated, too, with a plaque detailing his achievement visible on platforms 18 and 19 of Tokyo's newly renovated central train station.
5. Winston Churchill
Though not a business owner, Churchill's bureaucratic leadership still represents a good example of the method and, as the UK's Prime Minister during the Second World War, was able to demonstrate it under particularly testing circumstances.
Just like a business going through a tough time due to market conditions or other external factors, Churchill realised that a sense of structure, careful control and consistent uniformity were necessary to prevail. However, the relative disasters of his subsequent post-war political career also illustrate that bureaucratic leadership is not always the best course of action, and that organisations in different states of flux often respond differently to the same approach. For instance, just as a dying business sometimes needs autocratic leadership to keep it alive, a growing startup often requires a more positive, democratic approach, a point proven by the former PM’s failures as much as his legacies.
Evidently, though, becoming a bureaucratic leader can yield success for your business, especially if you are operating in an industry conducive to its strengths. When implemented correctly within a highly controlled business environment, your leadership skills and qualities will undoubtedly prosper.
In order to develop your management style, don’t forget to take a look at our other leadership examples and lessons, too!
Have these bureaucratic leadership examples inspired you to adopt this management style within your own company? Why or why not? Let us know your thoughts in the comment section below!