How to Overthrow the Dictator in the Corner Office

Dictators don’t just live in North Korea and Russia. They are alive and well in the corner offices of many companies great and small. Sure, they may not threaten to blow up movie theaters or invade neighboring countries, but corporate dictators do rule their domain through the strategic use of fear and punishment.

Here is a real example submitted by a reader:

“Some years ago when I was a Sales Director at a large national company, I reported directly to a VP who I would describe as a bully. One day he was chairing a leadership meeting where we managers were each presenting reports on our respective stewardships. The VP systematically castigated anyone who presented an honest outlook on their responsibility. Others not wanting to provoke his wrath presented what I would call an ‘optimistic view’ on their report.”

“When it was my turn on the ‘rack’ I gave a realistic view of my stewardship and then presented a plan to close the gap between my team’s performance and our department targets. When I finished, the VP, in front of everyone, proceeded to aggressively reprimand me for my team’s sub-standard performance and my inadequate plan. He then asked the controller to back up his assessment of my plan, to which the controller hesitantly responded that my analysis was accurate that my gap reduction plan would likely work.

Stunned but undeterred, the VP shot an unrelated question at me about a topic that he knew I didn’t know anything about. I replied that I didn’t know the answer but that I would research it and get back to him quickly. Seizing his new opportunity, he proceeded to chastise me for not being able to answer this obscure question. He went on to tell everyone in the room that they had all better be more thoroughly prepared for meetings.”

“The effect of his tirade was that in the future he got exactly what he wanted: a team of zombies who did only what they were told and who feared to tell him the truth at risk of either being publicly shamed or fired.”

The Fix

Unfortunately, there is no quick way to rid ourselves of corporate dictators. If you are reading this, you’re probably not one of them. You may, however, work your way to the corner office. On your way there, and once you get there, remember these tips:

Tip #1.  Fear doesn’t motivate – it paralyzes. Sure, people may be running around carrying out your orders with their hair on fire. But as soon as the orders have been carried out, things come to a standstill. Nobody wants to take any initiative for fear they will make the wrong decision and incur the wrath of the boss.

Tip #2.  Outbursts of anger and boardroom intimidation tactics are not effective ways to get your point across. Ranting, glaring, finger-pointing and boardroom table pounding all put people on the defensive and reduce their ability to come up with creative solutions to the problem you are highlighting. Instead, draw people’s attention to the potential impact the problem could have on the company, its customers and its employees. Then invite input on solutions.

Tip #3.  People who fear the boss waste time trying to avoid being blamed for anything. They spend their time in email battles with co-workers building their case for why the company’s problems are the other department’s fault. As author Simon Sinek said in a Ted Talk, a leader’s job is to make her team feel safe, so they can expend their energy fighting the company’s battles, rather than contending with internal threats.

We may not be able to orchestrate a dramatic coup d’état to oust our current corporate dictators, but I am convinced that the more people who become aware of these simple principles and apply them, the fewer dictators we’ll have in the future.


Check out the Leadership Blind Spots Self-Evaluation for a list of the most common leadership dysfunctions and how to avoid them.


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