In 1947, Max Weber first described the bureaucratic leadership style, in which an organization — also known as a bureaucracy — is highly regulated and controlled through a top-down approach, with the leader strictly enforcing rules and the followers (or employees) following them. The concept of bureaucracy actually dates back to ancient times. It was used in Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, among other societies and institutions going back thousands of years.
Although bureaucratic leadership sometimes gets a bad rap, there are certainly contexts in which it’s appropriate. Many organizations, particularly those that require absolute command and control, still follow this system of governance today, including many government institutions, such as the military.
What is a bureaucratic system? In a bureaucracy, there is a set of rules and guidelines in place, and it rarely changes. There’s also a clear chain of command, with the leader at the top giving instructions to subordinates. There’s little room for innovation and creativity (although some argue that it actually does lead to creativity, as we'll describe below) — this is usually because the tasks that need to complete must be done according to specific guidelines.
The bureaucratic leader, of course, leads the bureaucracy, often with absolute authority. It’s not a flexible style, with the subordinates each assigned specific roles and responsibilities. This often allows for more predictable outcomes. That’s why the system benefits organizations that can’t depend on chance.
While there are many theories of bureaucracy, they are all, for the most part, based on Max Weber’s original conception of the leadership style, which he described in his book, Economy and Society. Weber noted that bureaucratic leadership fell into the category of legal-rational authority, in which subordinates follow the leader’s absolute command and strictly enforced rules. However, he distinguished between the bureaucratic leader and the bureaucratic leader’s position; the latter, he wrote, was the source of power. For example, a president can only exercise complete power while they’re president, and after their term is over, they no longer possess this authority.
Weber also defined two other types of authority: charismatic authority and traditional authority. Charismatic authority, unlike bureaucratic, derives from someone’s personality or charisma. This leader is able to draw others to her and is respected because of this strength. Because charismatic authority depends on the person rather than the institution, it’s less sustainable than bureaucratic, because the leader herself is not replaceable. Traditional authority, meanwhile, is based on customs and the way things have traditionally been done. An example is a monarchy, in which bloodlines typically dictate who is in power.
In addition to describing types of authority, Weber’s theory posited that there are two major types of leadership: transformational and transactional. Bureaucratic leadership is aligned with transactional. This model perceives of leadership as a transaction: the leader has absolute control and implements an extrinsic reward-and-punishment system for their subordinates. That means subordinates must do exactly as the leader says (or as the rules dictate) and are rewarded for their efforts. Should they fail at the tasks they’ve been given, they are punished. In an organization, this might mean a reward in the form of a promotion or a bonus and punishment in the form of firing or demotions.
Weber believed bureaucratic leadership was particularly ideal for large organizations, where there needs to be a clear system in place for expectations. This style promotes productivity and efficiency and offers structured guidelines for the way things need to be done. While Weber thought this style was effect, he did warn that it forced people into an “iron cage.” Subordinates have little to no control and must adhere to a rigid structure, without exercising freedom.
So, what are the advantages of bureaucratic leadership? Despite its less-compelling qualities, there are some notable pros. The elements — positive and negative — are:
Whether these elements are advantageous or not is open to interpretation. Moreover, there’s some debate about certain aspects of the structure and how they affect outcomes. For example, whether or not bureaucratic leadership can ever encourage creativity is not set in stone. Jonathan Hall, for instance, argues that while many people perceive of the leadership style as hindering innovation, it can actually promote it in some scenarios. Because bureaucratic leadership depends on strict adherence to rules that all employees follow, if the rules allow for innovation and for employees to spend time creating, the entire organization will benefit, while still utilizing the leadership style.
Another subject of some debate is whether bureaucratic leadership promotes independence. This, too, depends on the situation. In some cases, employees must routinely follow rules in a cog-like way. However, responsibilities are still doled out to the subordinates by the leader, and the subordinates are expected to complete them, often independently. Some employees may be given greater responsibilities than others depending on their roles and capabilities, and thus may be afforded an even higher degree of independence.
What is an example of a bureaucracy? As we’ve discussed, there are many government agencies and institutions with nonelected positions and officials overseen by Congress and the president that qualify as federal bureaucracies in the United States. Cabinet departments, independent executive agencies, government corporations and regulatory commissions are the four major tyles of federal bureaucracies. Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, for example, are government corporations.
But what about bureaucratic leaders? We’ve examined how the power is concentrated in the position, not the leader, but there are still some qualities that make someone an effective bureaucratic leader. They include being:
One example of a bureaucratic leader is Winston Churchill. As the prime minister of Britain, Churchill used a structured, decisive plan of action for defeating Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. This allowed him to work with the other Allies to accomplish this goal. As a purpose-driven, goal-oriented leader he was persistent and meticulous in deploying his plan. His bureaucratic leadership style is also evident in his top-down leadership approach, in which he insisted on being kept informed at all times.
Often, leaders employ multiple leadership styles, and this is also evidenced by Churchill, who exercised charismatic leadership as well.
Although bureaucratic leadership is often heavily criticized for, among other characteristics, relying on micromanagement of subordinates, there are some situations in which it’s useful and even necessary. For example, work that can be dangerous or depends on the handling of sensitive information or resources, including data and money, will benefit from the structure the leadership style imposes. Construction, manufacturing, data management and, of course, many government agencies fall into this category. It may not be appropriate for every context, but it does have its place and advantages.