“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure. – Colin Powell

The word bureaucracy doesn’t necessarily make people smile with joy. While the bureaucratic leadership might have a bit of a bad reputation, it is one of the oldest leadership styles in the world.

The efficient, rule-based leadership framework has proven to be a smooth way to govern and to organize societies.

Bureaucratic Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples

© Shutterstock.com | pathdoc

The guide will delve into the history of bureaucratic leadership in terms of the definition of the word and the different concepts that have guided it. We’ll then explore the leadership framework’s core characteristics and the traits a bureaucratic leader must have. Finally, before we examine a few examples of these famous leaders, we’ll outline the advantages and disadvantages of bureaucratic leadership.


Before we examine the framework and the characteristics of bureaucratic leadership, it’s auspicious to delve deeper into what the word stands for and the findings of the two main leadership studies and theories that have had an impact on the leadership model.

The definition of bureaucracy

The term bureaucracy reveals some of the essential characteristics of the leadership model. The Cambridge dictionary defines the word as,

a system for controlling or managing a country, company, or organization that is operated by a large number of officials employed to follow rules carefully”.

The term is derived from the French word bureau, which stands for office or desk, and the Greek suffix kratia, which denotes the power of. Bureaucracy is therefore in essence “the power of office”.

Interestingly, the term has been used pejoratively from the start. It was first used by a French economist Jacques Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay, who had been quoted as saying, “We have an illness in France which bids fair to play havoc with us; this illness is called bureaumania.” The negative view of public administration and bureaucracy continued until the mid-19th century.

The slightly unfavorable view of bureaucracy is shown in the definition of the word bureaucratic. The Cambridge dictionary defines the term as, “involving complicated rules and processes that make something slow and difficult”. Furthermore, if you Google the word bureaucratic, the search engine will suggest a definition, which goes further to state, “over-concerned with procedure at the expense of efficiency or common sense”.

Nonetheless, while the term was first used in France in the mid-18th century, the history of using a bureaucratic system goes further back. The organised use of the administrative system, which is essentially what bureaucracy is, has its roots back in Ancient Egypt. The Ancient Chinese society also established a bureaucratic system, largely laid out by the teaching of Confucius, who believed in the importance of rituals.

Throughout the historic use of bureaucratic system and the different ways the model has been defined, three core elements have stayed at the centre of bureaucracy. These are:

  • Officialism – The systems show a lack of flexibility and initiative.
  • Redtape – There are high levels of adherence to rules and formalities.
  • Proliferation – The systems tend to expand rapidly.

Despite the pejorative view of bureaucracy, it has been an important part of running societies. Throughout its history, the bureaucratic systems have undergone reformation and restructure, often with little influence. Perhaps, the theorization of bureaucracy was almost inevitable.


Theories shaping bureaucratic leadership

As the bureaucratic systems began taking over modern societies, many philosophers and thinkers began examining the frameworks influencing bureaucracy. Influential thinkers such as John Stuart Mill and Karl Marx have examined the role of bureaucracy as part of a functional society.

But in terms of leadership theory, Max Weber and George Ritzer have perhaps been the most dominant in describing the style.

Max Weber’s leadership styles

The German sociologist Max Weber’s book Economy and Society outlined the ideal and the least ideal ways a society could form. In the study of power and leadership, Weber identified bureaucracy as one traditional form of organizing.

Weber’s theory focused on three separate types of legitimate power: legal-rational authority, charismatic authority, and traditional authority.

In the three-type model, the bureaucratic leadership fell under the first type of legitimate power. Under the system, the subordinates would follow normative rules and adhere to the leader’s authority in a strict manner. But instead of having the power attached to a person, as in the charismatic leadership style, the power came from the position, not from the leader’s characteristics or the ability to lead.

Furthermore, he distinguished between two types of leadership: transformational, which would include charismatic leadership, and transactional, which relates to bureaucratic leaders. The obvious differences of these two types are outlined well in the below image:


Based on: Owen Miller’s website

According to Weber, bureaucratization was an integral part of the rational-legal authority as well and he believed it to play a key role in the success of the Western society. He said, “Bureaucratic administration means fundamentally dominating through knowledge”. While he didn’t necessarily consider it the best leadership style, he nonetheless, thought it to be an indispensable part of the modern world.

Weber’s critique of the leadership style focused on the increased rationalization of human existence. He believed it could create a ‘soulless’ system of governance, where individual freedoms are hindered and everyone is viewed through a rule-based rationale. In his writings, he called this system the “iron cage”, which can trap individuals into a system of efficiency and control.

The bureaucratic leadership framework is based on specific competencies of the leader and the subordinates, according to Weber. This means the bureaucratic system always has a rigid division of labor and a clear structure of command, which is enabled by specific and strict rules.

In addition, the people within the system are assigned to the roles that best fit their skills and bureaucratic framework requires a continuous development of both the leader and the subordinates. Because of these requirements, the systems tend to focus on rules, laws and regulations as the basis of power and functionality.

Weber’s theory of bureaucratic leadership was expanded in the 1950s by an American sociologist Robert K. Merton. His Social Theory and Social Structure agreed with Weber’s analysis, but placed more emphasis on solving the dysfunctional nature of the model. Merton’s critique focused on the inflexibility of the style and believed the bureaucratic leader’s emphasis of formality over individualism would be a problem for the style in the future.

George Ritzer’s McDonaldization

Aside from Weber, bureaucratic leadership is closely tied to the concept called McDonaldization. The idea was put forward by an American sociologist in 1993 when he published The McDonaldization of Society. In fact, Ritzer saw McDonaldization as the process of rationalization, which Weber linked to bureaucratic leadership. Indeed, Ritzer theorized that his concept is similar to Weber’s expect that it fits the modern, globalised organizations better.

Ritzer’s McDonaldization theory is comprised of four key elements: efficiency, calculability, predictability, and control.

  • Efficiency refers to the optimal method of achieving specific objectives. The aim is to organize each aspect of the organization in a way that enhances efficiency; in terms of McDonalds, this would be the minimization of time in serving customers.
  • The second key element is about having quantifiable objectives. An organization under the bureaucratic leadership framework wants to have objectives the subordinates must achieve to ensure you can measure success. For example, McDonalds wants subordinates to deliver as many products to customers as possible, not necessarily focusing on the quality of service.
  • The framework also supports the idea of predictability, which essentially means that organizations offer the same service and value everywhere. If you consider McDonalds, the experience of eating in the fast food service follows exactly the similar procedure, whether you eat in the US or Japan. The organization’s focus should therefore be in creating repetitive, routine-like processes across the system.
  • Finally, the fourth element of McDonaldization refers to control. This essentially is about technology and how standardization of employees in different circumstances establishes a cultural hybridization. Since the service is the same in Japan and the US, the cultural experience, together with the consumption pattern, unifies into a single system, in this case the Western cultural hegemony.

The below YouTube clip features Ritzer discussing the elements of McDonaldization in the modern context:



Bureaucratic leadership is based on structure and it requires a clear framework to support its functions. Unlike with certain other leadership theories, such as charismatic leadership, the framework is rather ease to follow and to set up.

In this section, we’ll examine the core of the bureaucratic leadership framework. First, we’ll outline the six tenets of the model laid down by Max Weber. After, we’ll examine a set of four elements that form the basic requirements for a modern bureaucratic framework.

Weber’s six tenets

In Economy and Society, Weber identified the ideal types of governing and leading different organizations. As mentioned above, big chunk of the work was dedicated to the study of bureaucratization of society. He examined the different elements of bureaucracy and how they are organized, creating a theory of civil society, which has been used and analyzed ever since.

Furthermore, a big part of the analysis focused on the conditions and elements required for bureaucratic leadership to work efficiently. He described six tenets that are crucial for the framework.

1. Strict and formal hierarchy

Bureaucratic leadership relies on a strict and formal hierarchy, which guarantees members within the organization are aware of the structure. The authority is organized in a manner that guarantees a higher level of leadership controls each level of subordinates. Which in turn is controlled by another layer of leaders.

The formal hierarchy ensures authority is clearly defined and the command structure works like a well-oiled machine. The strict and formal hierarchy is the basis for the bureaucratic leadership framework. It guarantees the organization can plan efficiently and ensures the decision-making is centralized.

[slideshare id=59943859&doc=st-habit-blog-version-final-160323162100&w=710&h=400]


2. Immutable rules, regulations and laws to control the organization

The formal hierarchy can be withheld in place through a set of rules. A bureaucratic system requires defined rules that will control the structure and keep it in place. These two elements are the cornerstone of the model, because they both complement each other and provide support for each other.

The rules will provide consistency within the framework as well. Since the rules define the operations from small tasks to bigger decisions. The bureaucratic system is known for its, sometimes laborious, rules, but it is this that creates the framework for leadership.

It shouldn’t be seen as a burdensome aspect either, as the leader is more able to manage subordinates in a just manner, as the framework provides consistency in execution.

3. People are organized according to specialties

Bureaucratic leadership is not always associated with high level of skills, but it emphasizes knowledge and expertise in its framework. The system isn’t about knowing the right people or being the best at selling yourself to a position. The system always tries to combine the best talent with the right position.

According to Weber, the function of an efficient bureaucratic system is to focus on specialists. People are directed to roles that fit their skillset perfectly, as this can guarantee they are able to excel and help the organization to succeed.

Furthermore, the bureaucratic leadership framework establishes these roles and units clearly. The job specialization and skillset required to perform them are defined in a manner that makes finding the right person as smooth as possible.

4. Two key missions

According to Weber, the bureaucratic organization has to have either of these two key missions:

  • Up-focus mission, which means the organization is aimed at serving the stockholders, the board, or any other such agency that empowers it to operate. The organization wants to ensure the benefits of labor flow towards the ‘outside’ of the organization to secure further support from the source.
  • In-focus mission, which puts the organization itself as the focus of the operations. Under this mission the aim is the provide benefits to the organization and the people within it, such as creating more profit, improve the market share or enhance cash stream.

5. Impersonal style

While certain leadership frameworks put the persons in the front, such as servant leadership or charismatic leadership, the bureaucratic system is purposely impersonal. The personalities and the individual achievements are not at the core of the system, the main focus should be on the organization and the performance. The individual takes a lesser role.

The reason behind the thinking is about consistency and equal treatment. According to Weber, this kind of impersonal approach can guarantee the operations and functions perform rationally and are not affected by emotions or individual differences.

6. Hiring based on technical proficiency

Just as the subordinates are directed to roles that suit their individual skillsets, the hiring in a bureaucratic leadership model is based solely on technical proficiency. What this means is that the person who has the skills required in the specific role will always get the role. As long as you are able to do the job appropriately, then you are guaranteed the role.

This also results in the companies moving people from one role to another as the skills develop and change. The bureaucratic system doesn’t have much movement, because it favors in-house knowledge and understanding of the framework in place.

Four core elements

From the six tenets outlined by Weber arises four core characteristics of a bureaucratic leadership framework. In order for the model to work efficiently, these elements must be at the core of all decision-making and operational efficiency.

First, the system requires strict and systematic discipline on the subordinates. This is established by the rules and guidelines and it typically involves every aspect of the organization. Bureaucratic leadership models don’t only consider how the decisions are made within the organization; it also established guidelines on how the work will be done and how employees must conduct themselves at all stages. For example, things such as dress code can be strictly imposed on the subordinates.

The framework also establishes a clear position of power for leaders. Unlike laissez faire leadership, the subordinates don’t need to second-guess who within the organization has the power within the organization. The clarity of hierarchy is essential, as it guarantees people don’t step outside the line or make decisions that they are not entitled to make. Furthermore, it makes it easy for the leader as well, since their roles are clear and the expectations are laid out.

From this arises the third essential element, which means that within the system, the authority belongs to the leader and the subordinates should obey the leader. The system is strict in imposing this and subordinates that try to step out of the line are not usually greeted with much warmth. Therefore, the model does require an ability to follow the rules and take orders from the subordinates.

Finally, the fourth key element required under the framework deals with the rewards system within the organization. The rewards and promotions should be based on the subordinates’ ability to conform to the rules. A bureaucratic framework rewards specialty and it congratulates a job well done. Because of the impersonal nature, the focus is not on the person or their development as an employee. The only important part for the organization is the performance. If the employee performs as is required, then the rewards will follow. Again, the clarity of this can create a well-structured machine that operates efficiently.


The above outlined the framework required for the bureaucratic leadership. But it’s also beneficial to study the qualities and traits a bureaucratic leader should possess. The style can be rather difficult to master.

Although the focus is on performance and not the individual, specific skills will help the bureaucratic leader to ensure the organization follows the model and succeeds under this leadership style.

Below are five traits a bureaucratic leader should focus on in order to excel in this specific style.


The leader must be detail-oriented, since the structure is based on rules and the enforcement of those. This means the leader must be able to stay on top of miniscule details and to ensure guidelines are followed at all times. It might sound dramatic, but the framework does not allow even the slightest deviance from the established model.

Being detail-oriented is among the traits the majority of people believe are strictly something innate. For a number of people, the ability to focus on micromanagement is a skill you either have or don’t have. But the trait can be improved and developed further.

First, the fun thing about improving your detail-oriented mind is to train it by playing games. Science has shown that games such as puzzles and memory games can improve focus and memory, both of which are essential skills in noticing detail.

The second step is to focus on how you approach things in your life, especially in terms of accomplishing tasks. The below video outlines the three key elements detail oriented people do when they are faced with tasks.


As the video noted, you should always plan your approach well beforehand. Breaking a task into smaller steps can help you better understand what is involved. Visualizing is also a key part of this, as it can help understand not only what needs to be done, but also what are the best ways to do so.

Finally, focus is a key part of the roadmap to detail-oriented nature. If you are not able to focus, try improving this specific skill with meditation, for instance.


You’ll also need to be prepared to work hard for the objectives. Since the framework emphasizes performance, the leader must be setting an example of high standards, with the quality of work and the ability to finish objectives.

The ability to work harder is directly related to the sense of motivation. The more motivated you feel, the more effort you are going to put in. Therefore, the key to creating a hardworking nature is all about motivating yourself to push forward. Committing yourself to a specific goal can be done by:

  • Set a clear goal for everything you do. You need to be aware of what you are doing, but also why you are doing it. If you are aware of your tasks and what the achievements would mean to you, you’ll feel more inspired to work towards them.
  • Create habits. You shouldn’t think in terms of trying to motivate yourself towards a goal, because willpower can be quickly depleted. Instead, focus on establishing small habits that help you achieve goals. Set automated routines, such as focusing for 15 minutes in the morning to clear your e-mail, and soon you’ll do them efficiently without much thinking.
  • Learn to step out of your comfort zone. There’s a saying in sports that goes, “No pain, no gain”. It might be cheesy, but it is true. You can’t achieve greatness by staying in your comfort zone. Start by trying new things and venturing into the unknown in all aspects of your life.
  • Remember to reward and punish yourself. Sometimes motivation and hard work comes down to simple rewards or punishments. If you know there’s something good at the end of the line, you might be able to push yourself harder. On the other hand, you should also try the opposite – Pushing yourself harder towards a goal by having a punishment in mind.


As well as being detail-oriented, bureaucratic leaders also need to be task-focused. The framework is about performance and achieving the set objectives, not innovation or empowerment. As a leader, you need to be on top of all the objectives and know how the tasks can be done most efficiently.

Task-focused leaders must create clear schedules for subordinates, with emphasis on the requirements of the task. You need to focus on the standards of the objective and much of it relies on the same skills as detail-oriented leadership. You need an enhanced understanding of the organisation, the functions required for the tasks and the different processes needed to achieve the goals in the best way.

One of the key aspects of being task-focused is about improving your ability to pay attention. If you are easily distracted, you can’t perform at your highest level under this leadership style.

Entrepreneur recently recommended three simple tips for staying focused during the day. According to the experts, you first need to get creative work out of the way. This means making decisions, for instance, should be a top priority, with the more automated jobs following afterwards.

You should also schedule your time more deliberately. Understand when your focus is at its peak and dedicate your toughest tasks to these moments. Don’t venture into a day with the idea that you’ll do things as they come, but carefully allocate your tasks to timeslots.

Finally, the article emphasized training your brain, just as you do your muscles. Commit yourself to a single task for a short period and continue increasing the allocated time as you go along.


The bureaucratic leader’s role might seem easy, as the authority is solely in the hands of the leader. You don’t need to worry about structure of power or delegating decision-making to subordinates, but it doesn’t mean the position wouldn’t require a strong mind.

In fact, strong-mindedness is a crucial requirement for a bureaucratic leader, as you need to be able to keep everything in order and ensure the framework isn’t broken.

There are five key qualities to being strong-minded, according to Michael Hyatt. You need to be:

  • Confident. Confidence can be built by taking small steps. Hyatt writes that, “success builds upon itself, and slowly, it lays down a permanent route to change.
  • Courageous. You also need to have courage and this is closely attached to your ability to step outside of that comfort zone.
  • Committed. You’ll also need to be committed to achieving the objectives you set for yourself and the organization. Understand that success takes time, but if you don’t believe in what you are doing, you’ll never get there.
  • In control. Being in control doesn’t necessarily mean you can control everything – you can’t. But you need to have faith in what you are doing and know that you are skilled enough to achieve your goals. If you learn everything there is to know about a topic and you continue training yourself in the industry and in leadership, you’ll stay in better control of the results.
  • Possess a sense of purpose. Finally, Hyatt recommends improving your sense of purpose. You can stay strictly on target to achieve the objectives, if you are aware of what you are working towards. He quoted Dr Benjamin Mays in his article, who once said, “The tragedy of life does not lie in not reaching your goals, the tragedy lies in not having any goals to reach.



Finally, bureaucratic leadership is not the world’s most passion inducing leadership styles, but it does require the leader to be passionate. The meticulous focus on objectives, the ability to concentrate on the tasks ahead, and the hard work it takes to keep everything in order won’t be achieved if you aren’t passionate about leading the troops.

Because the bureaucratic style is focused on objectives and following the same framework each day, feeling of boredom is possible. Therefore, you must have the passion for the work you do and for achieving the objectives you’ve set out.

A Forbes post by Kevin Harrington from 2014 listed a few tips to reigniting your passion for the work you do. Among these were:

  • Having a break – Sometimes removing yourself from the situation, such as work, and doing something completely different can make you want to get back to work.
  • Read more – Learning is a great way to find your love of the industry. Don’t only read books regarding your profession, but also educate yourself on leadership, entrepreneurialism and emotional intelligence.
  • Use a mentor – You should join a mentoring program or find a person you can turn to when things get rough. As well as having a mentor of your own, you could also try mentoring, as it can be a great learning curve to see someone else just starting out in the leadership role.



The bureaucratic leadership has its own set of benefits it can provide to organizations in today’s world. But equally, the leadership theory also poses plenty of challenges both organization and leaders should keep in mind when considering using the approach.

Advantages of bureaucratic leadership

When it comes to the advantages of bureaucratic leadership the most notable benefit must be the essential nature of bureaucracy in organizations. In short, bureaucracy is to some extent an essential part of any modern business and therefore, the bureaucratic leadership style can be an easy continuum. In addition to the previous point, the bureaucratic leadership framework is easily repeatable. Because of the focus on establishing a clear and well-defined set of rules and processes, replicating a successful system is not difficult.

This provides the advantage of maintaining the framework under all sorts of circumstances. If the organization faces changes in personnel or in other similar situations, the bureaucratic processes and established structures can keep the processes running and quickly steady the ship, so to speak. When the authority system is established, then decisions are made quicker. The hierarchical nature and pre-set procedures ensure that there is no time wasted in figuring out what happens next.

The set structures and regulations make introduction of the new subordinates much easier. Overall, the leadership framework is exceptionally suited for organizations, which perform highly repeatable tasks. In the case of the fast food industry and the theory of McDonaldization, you can see how the bureaucratic engine can boost the organization in terms of achieving the objectives. For new subordinates, getting stuck in with the role will be easy, as the expectations and procedures are clearly defined.

Different to certain other leadership theories, such as charismatic leadership, the bureaucratic model doesn’t emphasize the leader. The leader is only in the position through his or her competence and the power doesn’t come from his or her personality, but the position. In the perfect bureaucratic scenario, people obtain positions based on competence and skills, with the structure guaranteeing them the power to lead. A leader doesn’t need to worry about inspiring the subordinates in order to gain legitimacy.

Overall, the bureaucratic leadership system can provide extremely reliable results. It guarantees procedures don’t falter under pressure and ensures everyone in the organization is aware of the processes and objectives. In essence, it provides organizations with better focus and a well-defined roadmap for achieving the success. If you want consistency, then the bureaucratic framework can provide it.

The advantage of stability isn’t only enjoyed by the organization, but the subordinates can also benefit from the consistency. Under the bureaucratic leadership, job security can be high, as employees are expected to perform in a clear manner. As long as you follow the norms set by the organization and you help achieve the set objectives, then you can continue working for the organization. The improved job security can act as a motivational boost and help the subordinates to maintain professionalism.

It should also be mentioned that the bureaucratic system could be especially beneficial for organizations, which rely on safety. Dangerous jobs or organizations that deal with sensitive information can improve security with a bureaucratic system, as it guarantees everyone in the organization follows a set of laws and procedures. Knowing a set of procedures can automate performance and make responding to emergencies much faster.

Disadvantages of bureaucratic leadership

Despite some of the above benefits, bureaucratic leadership also creates a few hurdles that can be difficult to overcome. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the structured leadership model is how it deals with creativity and innovation. Since the system relies on structures and established procedure, it can be an inflexible system.

Subordinates are not expected to make decisions out-of-the-box and everything that would deviate from the established system will have to be dealt with supervisors. The rigid structure can create an environment where people just follow the procedure and don’t try to consider different ways of doing things.

The bureaucratic system can diminish creative thinking because the system for changing the procedures can be cumbersome. A new idea will need to be introduced in steps, following the hierarchical power structure, and even if the suggestion is accepted, changing the old structures can take time. Change is never easy, but it can be especially difficult in a system that’s not used to changing. Breaking established habits is a difficult thing to do and it can be extremely hard within an organization.

Furthermore, while bureaucratic leadership does establish a strong professionalism within an organization and people can progress on the career ladder based on competence, the leadership style doesn’t necessarily empower subordinates as much as certain other styles. The framework rewards people who are professional and can follow the rules – there is not necessarily much emphasis on increasing your expertise. As long as the subordinate is able to perform the tasks according to the rules and achieve the goals set, the willingness to improve skills or understanding of different aspects of the work.

Maybe you even need to think about moving beyond empowering your employees.


Overall, the conformity to rules and the job security provided by the framework can hinder not only the motivation of the worker, but also damage the organization. First, when the subordinate doesn’t have to challenge him or herself, the everyday work can quickly become mundane. Knowing that you can’t truly innovate and be creative with your approach can damage your passion towards the work and you simply start performing what is necessary. You don’t push yourself further and challenge yourself in terms of the quality of work, as doing the minimum can be enough.

Furthermore, subordinates who thrive under pressure and who are passionate about developing their skills can find the bureaucratic environment damaging in terms of their career. Not being able to use your talent to the maximum and not being surrounded by creativity, resentment might bubble under the surface and lead to passionate and talented subordinates to move to another organization.

In addition, the organization can stall in terms of improvement, as the subordinates become complacent and unmotivated. As long as people do their jobs, the organization has little breathing room in terms of moving subordinates to other roles or indeed hiring new talent. As mentioned above, the most talented subordinates are likely to move forward, while the subordinates that stay are only performing average, as they aren’t pushed to the next level.

It must be said that the bureaucratic leadership framework is also task-oriented, with less focus placed on the individual. The aim is not about empowering subordinates or inspiring them to lead, but rather to achieve the goals in the most efficient manner. The style can seem robotic and subordinates can easily feel less appreciated under the system. The organization’s focus and investment are directed towards improving the processes, not necessarily the people performing these tasks.


Bureaucratic leadership style has a long history. It’s been used in politics and in religions organizations around the world. The effectiveness of the style has seen a number of great leaders take advantage of the framework, with business leaders understanding the essential nature of the style.

Who are some of the bureaucratic leaders you might want to look up to? Below are four examples of the benefits and the occasional downside of the leadership framework.

Winston Churchill

While the British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, showed a number of different leadership qualities, bureaucratic leadership is definitely among the strongest models he used. Churchill had charisma, which he used during the Second World War, but he also relied on a heavily structured system to get things done.

Churchill’s key bureaucratic leader traits were his decisive nature and persistency to follow the plan. Churchill was wary of both Stalin’s Soviet Russia and Hitler’s Nazi Germany right from the start. This wasn’t a popular assessment of the time and the British Government didn’t believe the stark images Churchill was painting about the future, but Churchill stuck to his decision-making and view of the two leaders. Eventually, as the war began to tear Europe, Churchill was voted in and he created a decisive plan to defeat the enemy, no matter the cost.

Furthermore, Churchill also showed plenty of persistency. In his famous speech, Churchill said,

Whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, w shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

Churchill was also a detail-oriented leader, something that is a key trait in the bureaucratic framework. He wanted to know everything involving different aspects of the government and wartime military effort.

He understood the importance of trial and error, knowing it’ll be inevitable to have ups and downs in whatever you do. He smartly said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.


Colin Powell

Colin Powell is another great political example of a bureaucratic leader. His leadership style has roots in the military, which is an organization that often utilises the bureaucratic model. Powell quickly rose through the ranks in the US military, becoming a general and eventually the first black member of the Join Chiefs of Staff. His leadership skills were recognized in 2001, when he became the US Secretary of State.

From his time in the military, Powell learned the power of bureaucratic leadership and the need to follow procedures and norms. He understood that success was all about optimizing your potential to succeed and minimizing your failures. In essence, it is what bureaucratic framework is all about – creating a system that maximizes its potential for greatness and creates efficiency across the organization.

Powell also focused always on the mission and the task ahead. It wasn’t ever about achieving personal greatness; he knew that great organizations succeed and fail together, not through individual performance. He once said,

I’ve tried to do my best at what has come my way…I’m not without ambition. I’ve had a full and active public life.

In a 2012 Forbes article, Colin Powell gave advice to entrepreneurs and a number of the tips were directly applicable to a bureaucratic structure. For instance, Powell writes in the article about the importance of linking the organization’s strategy with the right resources. “Make sure people know what the job is and give them everything they need to get it done,” he wrote.

You can understand more about Colin Powell’s leadership and the lessons he’s learnt by watching the below TEDx talk.


Harold Geneen / ITT

The business world has also provided examples of bureaucratic leaders and Harold Geneen is among these figures. He made most of his success as the CEO of International Telephone and Telegraph Corporation (ITT), which he helped to grow into a multinational conglomerate. Much of his success was due to his focus and bureaucratic management style.

In fact, Geneen is often touted as the person who helped develop international businesses and establish the framework required to launch medium-sized organizations into the world stage. His idea of creating a parent company that owns subsidiaries in different industries is a popular model for most mega-corporations of today.

The bureaucratic leadership style was evident from the manner in which he structured the organizations. ITT held a tight leash on how the finances were run in subsidiaries and the accountability structure always followed a clear hierarchical outline. Different departments were built on a hierarchical model and the autonomy was placed within these smaller units. The framework of the organization was always set on a macro-level, even though micro-decisions were allowed within smaller team.

Harold Geneen was a passionate student of leadership and he spent time writing on the topic as well. He once said, “Leadership is practiced not so much in words as in attitude and in actions.” The quote reflects the bureaucratic leadership idea of keeping the organization and performance at the centre, not the individual achievements or traits.

In business, words are words; explanations are explanations, promises are promises, but only performance is reality, Geneen noted.

Alfred P. Sloan / General Motors

Another example of a bureaucratic business leader comes from the early 1920s in the form of Alfred Sloan. The American businessman was elected president of General Motors and under his leadership, the company reformed its approach to leadership and management. He didn’t just change the way General Motors was managed, but also influenced the whole of the industry.

Historian Harold Livesay has argued that Sloan “bureaucratised the entrepreneurial function”. He created a hierarchical organization, which focused on following rules and taking calculated risks. He decentralized a number of the functions, allowing individual sections of the organization to manage themselves. Sloan was a meticulous leader, although sometimes rather ruthless as well.

He strongly believed in the corporate culture, especially when it was about decentralized decision-making, measured performance and continuous development. Sloan’s ideal society would have resembled something present in today’s world, where a number of public institutions take advantage of a corporate leadership culture. Organizational control was the key to success in Sloan’s eyes.

Sloan had a realistic approach to development and innovation. He understood the value, but he also wanted to focus on providing people with things they wanted and which were practical. He once said,

The greatest real thrill that life offers is to create, to construct, to develop something useful. Too often we fail to recognise and pay tribute to the creative spirit. It is that spirit that creates our jobs.

Sloan was always willing to take the risks, if the rewards were worth it.


Bureaucratic leadership is one leadership style that has been thoroughly tested throughout the times. It has been a popular form of organizing societies and after Weber’s theorizing, the framework became a popular choice for leaders in the business world as well.

Nonetheless, the style has suffered from a bad reputation, often driven by inefficiently executed systems. Bureaucratic leadership can be tedious and laborious, with pressure placed people strictly following the rules. There can be loss of creativity and lack of subordinate empowerment under the framework.

On the other hand, bureaucratic leadership is somewhat necessary in any large business and if the framework is set properly, it can provide an efficient structure for a business to function. It’s definitely a style to consider if you are leading an organization with inexperienced employees and you need consistency and reliable results.

Comments are closed.