A bureaucratic leadership style is characterized by strict adherence to structured procedures and the organizational hierarchy.
Power and authority are determined by placement in the organizational chart, which results in a clear chain of command for decision-making.
Industries that are stable, highly regulated, or dangerous, need to apply a bureaucratic leadership style to ensure that policies and procedures are followed exactly. Variation could cause severe negative consequences for the company, employees, and in some cases, the public. Therefore, a management style that is rigid is most effective.
Examples of organizations that utilize a bureaucratic leadership style include government agencies, manufacturing divisions, law enforcement agencies and the military.
Definition of Bureaucratic Leadership
The bureaucratic leadership style works well when there is very little need for employee creativity or innovation.
In the modern industrial era however, there is becoming less of a need for structure and routine, and more of a need for flexibility and change.
Bureaucratic and autocratic leadership styles are often confused. They both rely on structure and authority, but the autocratic leader has nearly full control over decision-making and employee activity. The focus is clearly on the leader.
However, the bureaucratic leader plays more of a role in a larger system conforming to a chain of command. So, the bureaucratic leader may need to implement plans that they did not devise or agree with, but still must execute.
Examples of Bureaucratic Leadership
Common workplaces where you find bureaucratic leadership include:
- Government Department Manager
- Assembly Line Manager
- Construction Foreman
- Bio-Lab Safety Director
- Fast Food Restaurant Manager
- A Police Department
- Mortgage Loan Officer
- Government Health Inspector
- Head Electrician
- The Military
The Examples Explained
1. Government Department Manager
It is easy to identify the bureaucratic leader in a government department by the way they conduct team meetings.
The agenda will be distributed when the meeting begins, and most likely, it will be the first time the staff has seen it.
The items on the agenda will come directly from those above the leader in the chain of command. It is highly unlikely that staff will have been asked to suggest agenda items.
The leader does 90% of the talking, with most of the time being devoted to explaining procedures and giving very explicit instructions on how to perform various tasks.
The entire meeting may pass without the leader seeking the input or suggestions of the staff. The only questions that occur will be to ensure that everyone understands the rules and instructions as described.
2. Assembly Line Supervisor
Before robotics took over manufacturing, products were put together by people using their hands and various tools.
Each person on the assembly line had a very specific task to perform which had to be carried out exactly as defined, each and every time.
The line supervisor was in charge of training personnel and observing their performance. Any variation from the prescribed routine was not tolerated (this makes it similar to the autocratic leadership model).
There were also no opportunities for workers or the supervisor to make, or even suggest, changes in procedures. Instructions came from above and that was it.
This form of manufacturing led to so much repetition in movement that many workers experienced carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS). This could lead to damage so severe that a person would lose the ability to move that part of the body. Ultimately, they might be unable to perform their job.
The line supervisor was just one step in the bureaucratic chain.
3. Skyscraper Construction Foreman
Skyscrapers are a marvel of engineering. Today, many of these structures are over 100 floors high.
Most of the floors are the same in layout and design, which means that each floor is constructed the same way each time. Therefore, work teams will need to perform the exact same tasks, in the exact same sequence, floor after floor, day after day, for months on end.
It is the foreman’s job to make sure everyone strictly follows the procedures exactly as defined by the engineers. Any variation in how a particular floor is constructed could change the structural integrity of the building and lead to a serious disaster.
The foreman and workers have very little say in how things are done. They receive the plans, and follow the plans.
4. Bio-Lab Safety Director
Bio-labs are dangerous work environments. Scientists may be conducting research involving animals, biological organisms, and highly contagious viruses that pose a severe threat to the outside world.
Therefore, the director of safety must make sure that everyone working in the lab follows all safety protocols. There can be no variation whatsoever.
The director also has no flexibility. The safety protocols are mandated by a government agency and were designed by a team of specialists and experts that may have decades of experience in the research domain. Training the safety directors of labs is extensive and challenging.
When the safety director trains personnel at the facility, there is no give-and-take on how to do things. The safety director implements a strict training regime to the most exacting standards imaginable.
There will no doubt be inspections from government agencies to ensure that all procedures are strictly adhered to.
5. Fast Food Restaurant Manager
Being the manager of a fast-food restaurant is a demanding job. The hours are long and demanding.
The manager has daily and hourly reports to fill-out regarding sales, foot traffic, hours logged by personnel, and food waste. Each report requires careful tracking of data and comparisons to key metrics, as identified by corporate headquarters.
The manager has to observe all staff and make sure they follow the work procedures exactly. The kitchen staff can’t cook hamburgers just any way they want.
While the fast-food corporation may be hugely successful, taking in sales in the billions of dollars every year, the manager is just a cog in a massive machine. They receive training by the company and then carry out those instructions every single day.
This type of bureaucratic leadership style has proven to be immensely profitable and produced companies with locations around the entire globe.
6. A Police Department
Law enforcement agencies are highly structured organizations. The chain of command is clear; procedures are rigid, and strict compliance is expected.
The highest-ranking person is usually the police commissioner or chief of police, followed by captain, lieutenant, sergeant, detective and police officer.
Each position has a clearly defined role to play within the organization. Policies are formed at the top and instructions for how to follow those rules are distributed downward through the chain of command.
The last personnel to receive those instructions are the police officers, who have been thoroughly trained in great detail on how to carry out those commands. There is virtually no flexibility in how orders are executed.
In fact, in many situations, review panels will scrutinize the actions of officers to determine if they were in compliance with training or not. Violations are to be dealt with firmly and usually punitively.
7. Mortgage Loan Officer
A mortgage loan officer works for a bank or other financial institution. Their primary responsibility is to help customers obtain a mortgage to buy a home or other type of building structure.
To do so, they must have extensive knowledge of numerous government regulations and the financing institution’s requirements for qualifying.
There are strict guidelines in place that they must follow, all of which are formulated from the highest levels of the management hierarchy.
Mortgage loan officers must follow those guidelines explicitly and have very little flexibility in their application. Banks, in general, are highly bureaucratic organizations and distribute policy and procedures in a top-down chain of command.
8. Government Health Inspector
A government health inspector is responsible for assessing if restaurants and other food establishments are in compliance with various health and safety standards.
They evaluate the work environment by conducting detailed observations and tests.
They carry equipment to check the temperature of cold storage facilities, check expiration dates on all food packaging, and assess the overall cleanliness of the entire establishment.
However, one thing they don’t get to do, is set the rules. They have no input on the standards or criteria for passing an inspection. The procedures they follow to conduct their assessments are all prescribed from above.
When an establishment is found to be out of compliance, there is no room for rapport building or team-building. The inspector describes the violations found and outlines the steps needed to regain compliance.
Because food safety is such an important issue, a bureaucratic leadership style is the most suitable.
9. Head Electrician
There aren’t too many things more dangerous than electricity. Bad wiring, poor insulation, or the miscalculation of amps, could all lead to a major disaster and even the loss of life.
For this reason, the training that goes into becoming a certified electrician is extensive. It requires high level math skills and an unforgiving attention to detail. Moreover, it can take years of experience and superior test performance to reach the status of head electrician.
Fortunately for the public, the management structure for a company that handles the wiring of a large structure is bureaucratic. Regulations and procedures are handed down from the government and then distributed all the way down to the guy in the building connecting wires to outlets.
The head electrician is not going to change any of those procedures or seek input from the team. Everything has to be done according to plan.
10. The Military
Perhaps the best example of a bureaucratic leadership style can be found in a military. The chain of command is strictly adhered to, with very little, if any, formal channel of reciprocal feedback.
The rules and regulations are strictly enforced and can involve severe punitive discipline if not followed.
There is an emphasis on administrative duties and paperwork to ensure that procedures are organized and followed to exacting standards. Each level of personnel in the organizational chart is carefully monitored by others higher in the command chain with regular review procedures to reinforce compliance.
The military is the prototypical bureaucratic organization.
The best definition of a bureaucratic leadership style comes from the sociologist Max Weber, who coined the term in 1947:
“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.”
There are many professions which work within a bureaucratic leadership structure. This leadership style can usually be found in industries that involve government oversight and areas where safety issues are paramount.
When consequences can involve the loss of life, it is important to have a heavily bureaucratic leadership style in place to ensure that rules and procedures are followed as closely as possible.
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