Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hit headlines nationwide recently with his tough stance against public employee unions — legislation he pushed through despite massive public protests against it.
Regardless of what you think about Walker’s actions, we wondered whether the new governor’s top-down, no-debate leadership is something that works in business. Is Scott Walker’s tough management style to be copied? Or avoided?
Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior Karen Leonard, who teaches at the Doermer School of Business at Indiana and Purdue universities, calls Walker’s style “directive,” and warns that it can be have harmful consequences. “The directive style certainly gets things done, but is often counter-productive, particularly in the business environment,” Leonard says. “The directive decision-making style has one large downfall: It does not help the leader in gaining followers’ trust.”
Leonard notes that “upsetting stakeholders of a business, including employees, can have severe repercussions.” Since polls in Wisconsin showed most voters disapproved of Walker’s actions, “trust in the governor’s leadership may have eroded.”
Bruce Winston, dean of Regent University’s School of Entrepreneurship & Leadership, counters that Walker’s top-down approach “is a suitable style when dealing with diverse stakeholders who disagree on the preferred end result and for which there is insufficient time to debate and reach a consensus.”
Adds Winston: “While a more participatory leadership decision-making style may be preferred by the employees and legislators, it seems that Gov. Walker determined that a decision had to be made quickly.”
Similarly, Bob Preziosi, management chair at Nova Southeastern University and author of The Leadership Road, finds Walker’s style “appropriate for this situation… He took a stand when others just let themselves be pushed around. This is fine because it shows a belief in asserting your leadership agenda.”
Tom Anastasi, MBA director at Daniel Webster College in Nashua, N.H., and author of The Successful Entrepreneur: American Dream Done Right, says the question of whether Walker’s style is ultimately effective is still open. “Walker is certainly a coercive leader, which is very effective in turnaround or crisis situations,” he says. “Many people look at coercive as a poor leadership style, but effective leaders need to have it in their tool bag because there are times it is needed.
“The downsides to coercive leadership are that people will do the minimum they have to to keep their jobs, and morale is dampened — so if there is not a true crisis, most leaders will find the authoritarian style more effective. The true question, of course, is was Wisconsin in a financial crisis? If yes, then his style was needed. If not, he could have burned a lot of political currency.”
Roger Hawkins is an industrial psychologist who interviewed 27 CEOs for his book, Sanctuaried: the CEO Divining Rod. Sometimes, says Hawkins, companies may need top-down managers to run “slash and burn” operations — when a company needs thousands of jobs cut, for example. But such leadership is crisis-oriented and doesn’t work for the long haul.
“Corporate Rambos are few and far between,” he says. “It’s a misconception that you have to have a tough guy approach. That’s not what effective leaders do in the context of today’s society and the generation of people they have to lead and work with today.”
Similarly, he says, political leaders need to build consensus among diverse populations, which “doesn’t gibe with a hard-nose, hard-ass kind of management style.”
Hawkins believes Walker could have had better success had he “sought more advice and gotten more collaboration and cooperation. If you’re going to sell something as big as union-busting, you’ve got to sell the people on the need for that.”