The Importance of Benevolent Dictators

Posted on Mar 9, 2013 | 69 comments


I believe that groups coming together to make tough decisions driven by consensus tend to make poor decisions.

steve jobsThis is especially true in startups where speed matters and where there is a need to constantly calibrate direction and where these decisions can have existential outcomes.

  • Should you increase your burn rate by adding 2 senior hires who will help you ship faster or sell more but then have less time for fund raising? Or maybe their existence itself will help accelerate fund raising. Who the fuck knows? But YOU have to make that tough judgment call.
  • Should you raise $3 million in stead of $2 million even though it means more dilution so that you will have a longer runway?
  • Is it better to have 2 VCs in the deal at 12% each or one at 24%? There’s no right answer.
  • Do you ship your product in what you don’t feel is feature complete so that you can be in market first or should you hold back and deliver a product you believe will get better reaction from the market but is 3 months later?

It’s hard being a leader. By definition leaders make hard choices given incomplete information. And by tough decisions I mean it is clear that some people’s views will end up on one side of the fence and others will end up on the other side.

But you need conviction.

Leaders need to be respected, not loved.

It’s why I look for strong leaders in companies that I back. A person who can inspire others to believe in the tough choices she makes and really get behind the tough choices made rather than than half the organization grin-fucking her.

I have seen the sclerotic pace of decision-making by some co-founders who don’t have a common sense of purpose or the ability to resolve conflict when different opinions result in delayed actions.

It’s why I caution people about whom you choose as your co-founder.

I believe in “benevolent dictators.”

They make tough decisions that they believe are in the best interests of the whole even when the collective consciousness of the whole doesn’t perceive it until much later.

I believe in people who are willing to put their reputation on the line and willing to be wrong. People who have a bias for action.

People who don’t always put themselves first even though the fact that they make tough judgment calls often makes others feel they are in it for themselves. People who go the extra mile behind the scenes to make sure that employees get topped up on options because you didn’t get their paperwork done before the 409a valuation even though said employee may not even know you did it for them.

Or firing people.  On the surface it can elicit negativity or a feeling that you have a sharp edge yet in some ways your benevolence might come from the fact that you are increasing the probability of success for everybody who stays. Increasing the chances of success for the people who put in their evenings and weekends and sweated their butts off for success when the people terminated may not have pulled their weight.

You’re the leader. It is your job to face these decisions early rather than put off that which is unpleasant. It is your job to absorb the uncertainty so that others can concentrate. Your job to face the naysayers, the haters, the skeptics, the back-benchers, the soft. And to take shit from all of them while still turning up at work with a smile on your faces and moving forward.

You’ll get your accolades. People will notice results. You’ll get public pats on the back and attaboys (girls). But you’ll have an equal chorus of, “She’s difficult to work with. She far too opinionated. Tempestuous.”

Fuck ‘em.

Don’t feed the trolls. Know that you signed up for this and it is why you are a leader.

I know, I know.

It’s 2013 and I’m supposed to believe in the “wisdom of the crowds.” We’re supposed to all allow side projects. 20% time. Total transparency. Everyone has a say. Free food. A chef. An on-premise masseuse.

And that’s fine.

Except that all of this “can’t we all just get along” mentality produces slow decisions. Group think. Compromises that lead to mediocrity. Avoidance of bold moves.

Think. Steve Jobs. Marc Benioff. Larry Ellison. Larry Page. Mark Zuckerberg. Bill Gates.

See any common threads?

Decision makers. Visionaries. Leaders. Chart their own course against the constant chorus of second guessers.

How many people thought Jobs was crazy when Apple first opened retail stores? How many lambasted Bezos for not delivered on profits at Amazon in aftermath of the dot com crash. He told people he was building for the long-haul and if they didn’t like the vision they shouldn’t hold the stock.

Bravo.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you should make decisions without other people’s input.

My motto is “always triangulate.”

I constantly ask people their opinions about topics and listen to how they argue them. By having many views and mixing it up into a pot and then sorting it out with a logic structure that informs my decision I often feel I get better results.

I don’t believe in turning up to a group discussion to form my opinion. I believe in sequential debates with the participants before I arrive. I then have a nuanced view of everyone’s position to make the most informed decision accounting for everyone’s views.

I know I kind of have a gene missing that allows the long, slow, consensus-building required to make infinitesimal progress on what are obvious decisions in side of my head. And it’s why I can never run for public office.

And I know that for every leader with whom this post resonates I will producer others who are affronted.

It’s subjective.

If you’re one of the ones with me just have the confidence to stick to your guns.

And the temerity to follow through on the vision of the future that is forming in your mind.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    It’s great to work for inspirational and determined leaders early in one’s career. You’re lucky for that.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I tend not to take it very well as you can imagine

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I don’t do investments by consensus. I only invest when I have very strong personal conviction. Great question.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yup. Like that one, too

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    agree totally. I have said that privately many times.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    Indeed I was. Atari and Creative both IPO’d as well.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com/ awaldstein

    I worked out of there during the early 90s.

    Caning, fined for chewing gum. Clean as new food vendors on the main streets, slaughtering lunch on the back ones.

    This has similarities to Apple how?

    I understand what you are saying but the comparison seems very apples and oranges.

  • Carrie Mantha

    God this makes me feel better. In the “I thought I was the only one” department, I’ve been plagued recently with people insisting I get everyone on board before I move forward with decisions of the hard/incomplete information/who the f*ck knows variety.

    I thought perhaps I was crazy for being the only one who thought that was crazy. I do think it’s important for everyone on the team to feel comfortable expressing their opinion when they feel strongly about something (and to feel like their opinions are respected), but I also think it should absolutely be sufficient to say, “I appreciate your thoughts on this, and I will consider what you’ve said, but I’m going to have to make an independent decision on this based on a lot of factors, not all of which will be obvious to you.”

    Does the anti-grin-f*cking framework (that phrase is killing me) suggest that I need to go back to those people and specifically say why I disagreed with them after I’ve thought through it/the decision has made? Or should the decision just stand as is?

    Either way, I think I will now add, “it’s my job to absorb the uncertainly and take responsibility for the decision so that you can concentrate on the work we need you to do to move this company forward.”

    Thank you for that! (I feel compelled to add that there are entirely different reasons why benevolent dictators are a problematic model for state governance, but I appreciate the point nonetheless!)

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    True. You gave me an education about Singapore and that was the first thing on my mind when I saw the title of this post.

  • http://www.startupmanagement.org/ William Mougayar

    Yes. Mentors have blindspots about your company. Drive-by mentorship, that is.

  • http://www.ceros.com/ Paul Fifield

    Thanks for the reply. I was referring to the need to get partner consensus to make an investment, but do you have more autonomy at GRP?

  • http://don.na/ Kevin Cheng

    Great post. My only nitpick is this part:

    “It’s 2013 and I’m supposed to believe in the “wisdom of the crowds.” We’re supposed to all allow side projects. 20% time. Total transparency. Everyone has a say. Free food. A chef. An on-premise masseuse.

    Except that all of this “can’t we all just get along” mentality produces slow decisions. Group think. Compromises that lead to mediocrity. Avoidance of bold moves.”

    I’m not sure how those things are associated. The things you mention are perks or some (debatable) ideas to create a positive, trusting, and attractive work environment for those who earn it. Even transparency isn’t mutually exclusive from being a decision maker. Jeff Bezos saying he’s building for the long haul is transparency AND being decision maker.

  • http://influads.com/ damiansen

    @msuster:disqus i believe investors do not put their money behind those types of people at early stages. Being the “nice” guy is then more perceivable as a good trait and influences the decision by VCs more than the guy that made the hard calls, IMHO

  • wfjackson3

    This is good stuff and things I mostly do. I will throw in that if you join an organization, especially a small one, you have to establish some common vision or purpose or you will likely face tremendous resistance. If people don’t feel like you are taking them to a place they want to go, then they are much less likely to be cooperative when you start changing things. Agree?

  • craighyde

    You can’t change the world by pleasing everyone. You have to shake things up to break away from status quo.

    Reminds me of one of my favorite quote from Richard Branson… “I believe in benevolent dictatorship provided I am the dictator.”

  • http://twitter.com/cmfryer Christopher Fryer

    “An agreement reached by a group of men is only a compromise or an average drawn upon many individual thoughts.” -Fountainhead

    I like your idea of triangulation. I’ve worked at a company where it’s like community basketball: everybody has to touch the ball before we shoot. There is no clear leader and the product and timelines suffer as a result.

  • http://joeyevoli.com/ Joe Yevoli

    Your “Always Triangulate” motto reminds of the Apollo 13 story from the book, “The Leadership Moment”. Eugue Kranz, the mission chief (played by Ed Harris in the movie) was listening to two of his superiors discuss what the next move was – Do they tell the crew to go to sleep, as one believed? Or, do they turn the power off to conserve energy, as the other believed?

    Long story short, both men fought hard for their point of view, and Kranz just sat in silence listening to both view points. Here’s an excerpt from the book:

    “The three way argument escalated for several minutes, with each point and counterpoint more fiercely asserted than the last. Kranz said little throughout, mainly listening to what his three superiors had to say. Finally, he held up his hand, and they stopped speaking. ‘Gentlemen,’ Kranz said ‘I thank you for your input… The next job will be to execute a thermal roll. After that, they will power down their spacecraft. And finally, they will get some sleep. A tired crew can over come fatigue, but if we damage this ship any further, we’re not going to get over that.”

    I read this book over 3 years ago but that story has always stuck to me. He listened to their opinions and made, what he thought to be, the best decision at the time – then moved on to the next thing. If he can make such a definitive decision under those circumstances, we all should be able to!

  • Startup Puppies

    We have passed your article around the office trying to come to some consensus on its merit but to no avail. I dare not make a decision myself for fear of alienating one of our team members. We will have to back to you on this one.

  • David Ball

    bravo