On Team Leaders as Benevolent Dictators

I’ve recently been doing some thinking about what makes a good team in the context of work. To me, a good team (as I’ve previously discussed) is one that can operate efficiently and without bottlenecks. A good team is based on mutual credibility, loyalty, and trust. Each teammate has a discrete task and no work is duplicated. Finally, a good team works toward a single unifying vision (i.e. “what success looks like”, in consulting parlance).

My conception of teams has led me to consider what type of person a product leader would have to be in order to release a great product. I keep coming back to the idea of a benevolent dictator; here’s my thinking:

The majority of the population cannot really articulate what it is they want. People’s thinking and expectations are constrained by the past; a product leader must show them a better future.

This requires a single, overarching vision. Note that word choice: “vision,” not “idea.” Ideas are a dime a dozen. Anyone can have a “good idea.” But vision comes from deep understanding of a problem. You don’t have to be an expert. You just need to get really smart about a big problem in the world and find a novel, efficient, 10x better way to solve it. This often delivers consumer delight or awe.

In order to prevent dilution of vision, product teams need benevolent dictators in charge. When decisions are made by committee or consensus, debates slow down progress and the vision that drives things forward is diluted by too many voices. Almost every successful startup is therefore a cult of personality. Facebook is the Cult of Zuck, Microsoft is the Cult of Gates, Apple is the Cult of Jobs, Virgin is the Cult of Branson, and so on.

“I believe in benevolent dictatorship provided I am the dictator.” -Richard Branson, Founder of Virgin Group

Thus, in order to maintain momentum and prevent dilution of vision, benevolent dictators assign tasks, have veto power, and make final decisions. However, these persons must welcome team contributions and cooperation; otherwise, they will find themselves without teammates quite quickly. The dictator tells people what needs to be done, but never how to do it. To quote Shyam Sankar of Palantir, “Despite the necessity of joint ownership (or perhaps because of it), some things simply require a dictator to get done. This is especially true in product development, where not only does halving the team often double the pace of progress, but the fulfillment of a coherent vision usually requires one actual visionary.”

When deciding, it helps the team dynamic to allow people to indicate their viewpoint. If a minority of people disagree with the dictator, they should just disagree and commit with the dictator. If a majority disagree, the dictator should disagree and commit with the majority. Therefore, complete consensus isn’t required to move forward, just the team’s sense that the vision is maintained.

This idea comes from Jeff Bezos at Amazon; he says, “If you have conviction on a particular direction even though there’s no consensus, it’s helpful to say, ‘Look, I know we disagree on this but will you gamble with me on it? Disagree and commit?’ By the time you’re at this point, no one can know the answer for sure, and you’ll probably get a quick yes.”

As Tim Herbig puts it, alignment doesn’t need agreement.

The goal of the benevolent dictator is to protect the product vision, not his or her own ego. This means that a good leader will tell people what needs to be done when it needs to be done, but be flexible enough to listen and adapt to the concerns of their teammates. Ultimately, the best product leaders will use their influence and vision to act as force multipliers for their teams.

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