What is Bureaucratic Leadership? How Rules Can Guide People

Characteristics of Bureaucracy

Bureaucratic leadership is one of the oldest forms of leadership. It dates back to the first world rulers, including Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar. In order to govern huge territories, these leaders were forced to create rules, regulations and hierarchies that were easily replicable.

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Bureaucratic leadership: Definition and beliefs

Bureaucratic leaders rely on rules and regulations and clearly defined positions within organizations. They tend to be people who are well organized. People in bureaucratic leadership are likely to report only to their immediate supervisor or, in the case of a president or CEO of a company, to the board of directors. Stepping out of the organizational role they play is difficult for them.

Employees in bureaucracies are promoted based on their ability to conform to the rules. Bureaucratic leadership is based on strict hierarchies and often depends on written job descriptions and organization charts to explain the hierarchy and their relationships.

Six tenets of bureaucratic leadership

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Max Weber developed formal definitions of bureaucratic leadership. Weber, a German sociologist, described six tenets that define bureaucratic leadership:

  • A strict hierarchy that is formalized by the leadership and strictly adhered to
  • The organization is controlled by immutable rules, regulations, or laws
  • The organization is structured along the lines of specialties. People with like talents are grouped together
  • The organization has one of two missions:
    • “Up-focus,” meaning it focuses on the board of directors or stockholders
    • “In-focus,” which means the organization serves a product-oriented goal such as increasing profits market share
  • Bureaucratic leadership is impersonal. It is about performance, not the worker
  • Employment is based on the most technically proficient

Bureaucratic leadership history: Ancient civilizations to modern corporations

Bureaucracy is probably the earliest of all management styles. Egypt, Rome, and Babylonia were legendary for their efficiently-run cities and strong armies. Rulers required bureaucratic offices to exist throughout the empire down to the smallest village or tribe. That meant that many of those responsible for governing empires were strong bureaucratic leaders.

Popes, monarchs, and emperors relied on bureaucracy

History tells us of strong bureaucratic popes, like the Medici family during the Renaissance, and bureaucratic monarchies, such as Ferdinand II, King of Spain, who financed Christopher Columbus and other explorers.

15th-century Aztec emperor Montezuma had to be a bureaucratic leader because he ruled over people spread over hundreds, if not thousands, of miles. In addition to governing large populations, Montezuma’s rules and laws made the culture’s engineering marvels possible.

Weber formally identified the style as it was evolving as a new form of leadership in Western Europe. In the present, bureaucratic leadership has allowed the world to develop huge multinational corporations. Because of strict hierarchies, companies can replicate themselves and their successes across the globe.  Bureaucratic leadership also allows governments to expand to serve mushrooming populations.

Examples of bureaucratic leadership

Bureaucratic leadership has its place in modern society. It is perfect for huge organizations but might fall short in startups where more flexibility is needed. It can be used for good or evil means.

General Motors and ITT

Once a bureaucratic structure is in place, it is relatively easy to replicate across countries. In the 20th century, two men stand out as bureaucratic leaders: Alfred P Sloan of General Motors and Harold Geneen of ITT.

Alfred Sloan was elected president of General Motors in 1923. He developed a system of discipline and professional management. Sloan’s management style allowed for decentralized production facilities that used centralized policies for organizational control.

Harold Geneen began his professional life as an accountant and is credited with developing the idea of international business conglomerates: a parent corporation that owns many unrelated subsidiary companies. He was able to buy companies and expand the ITT (International Telephone and Telegraph) corporation by imposing strict financial discipline in the newly-purchased companies.

Military use of bureaucratic leadership

The most deadly twentieth-century bureaucracy was created by Adolph Hitler. Without bureaucratic leadership, Hitler would not have conquered most of Europe and held on to it for as long as he did. Through a well-organized, but not necessarily well-led military, the Third Reich conquered country after country.

However, Mahatma Gandhi also used bureaucratic leadership to achieve Indian independence from British rule. He served as a national leader from the 1920s until his assassination in 1948.

The U.S. electoral system

All candidates, whether they are running for mayor of a small town or President of the United States, must organize using a bureaucratic management style in order to get information out to constituents, organize events and manage campaign donations.

Nationwide retail and food service businesses

Nationwide companies like Wal-Mart would not have been able to expand unless they had structure and order in place, and could replicate stores and management hubs quickly and easily.


Another example of bureaucratic leadership the concept put forth by George Ritzer called “McDonaldization.” It refers to the process of taking tasks and breaking them down into their smallest components. The smallest components are then reviewed to identify the single most efficient way to complete the task.

According to Ritzer, there are four components to McDonaldization:

  1. Efficiency: This is the most efficient method, with no room for individuality
  2. Calculability: Evaluating methods based only on quantifiable techniques
  3. Predictability: A process that guarantees consistency and standardized outcomes.
  4. Control: Removing the human elements as much as possible or replacing thoughtful activity with repetition

Bureaucratic leaders and quotes

Beyond Egypt, Rome and Babylonia, every country in the world uses some form of bureaucratic leadership and management to run their government services. Military leaders, in particular, have elevated bureaucracy to a science. No leadership style is guaranteed to work in all situations. Consider some of history’s greatest leaders in times of change:

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs started Apple with Steve Wozniak in 1976. In 1984, Apple released the first Macintosh computer and changed computing forever. Jobs and Wozniak were famous for making computers that were smaller, cheaper, and more intuitive than others. Jobs is credited in revitalizing the company after returning to Apple in the 1990s.  

Winston Churchill

U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill is best known for his radio speeches as he led Britain through World War II German blitzes and the fight against Germany. He was also the recipient of Roosevelt’s Lend lease policy. He was also part of the Allied powerhouse of the U.S., Russia, and Great Britain.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his civil rights activism and his non-violent creed. He and his supporters organized the civil rights march Washington D.C., which attracted 200,000 people.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher, the iconic “Iron Lady,” was elected as Britain’s first female prime minister in 1979, when England was suffering economic and political turmoil and the government was almost bankrupt. Thatcher was credited with turning the British economy around.

Warren Buffet

Warren Buffet is one of the richest people in America. His financial prowess is legendary. He was the person who turned Berkshire Hathaway into a household word. Buffet runs all of his organizations bureaucratically.

Colin Powell

Colin Powell was a bureaucratic military leader. He rose through the military to become a general and the first black member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Powell also served as the 65th U.S. Secretary of State.

Iconic leaders must establish guidelines, procedures and a “book” for their followers to go by. In effect, they need to become bureaucratic leaders when the situation requires it.

Quotes from bureaucratic leaders

Max Weber: “Precision, speed, unambiguity, knowledge of files, continuity, discretion, unity, strict subordination, reduction of friction and of material and personal costs – these are raised to the optimum point in the strictly bureaucratic administration.”

Steve Jobs: “For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

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

Mahatma Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Margaret Thatcher: “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other peoples’ money.”

Characteristics of bureaucratic leadership

Here are some of the characteristics of bureaucratic leadership:

  • Combines a top-down management style with strict adherence to policies and procedures within an organization
  • Leaders are empowered by the offices they hold and are held accountable to the next level in the hierarchy
  • The organizational structure is rigid and often has strict delineation of tasks and authority

Bureaucratic leadership does not require that the top leadership have personal influence on the organization, because regardless of who is the top executive the rest of the organization is in place and can run itself, if need be.

Bureaucratic leadership advantages and disadvantages

This type of management style is best used by established companies or governments that want to become more efficient and more effective. It appeals to leaders who do not like to micromanage the organization, but rather choose to delegate tasks, knowing that the organization’s structure is in place to support his requests.

This style suits employees who like structure and who are comfortable knowing exactly what is expected of them and who thrive on rules and regulations. Bureaucratic organizations are best for people for whom thinking outside the box is not part of the job description.

Bureaucratic leadership pros

The advantages of bureaucratic leadership include:

  • The structure is highly repeatable.
  • It allows a company to easily manage people who do repetitive tasks, like working on a manufacturing line or stocking shelves.
  • It is a perfect management style for large companies, military organizations and government departments, who count on reliable results.

Bureaucratic leadership cons

The bureaucratic leadership style does not work for start-up companies, where success depends on ingenuity and flexibility.

  • It is not a management style for those who are are expected to be free thinkers and think outside the box
  • This is not the management style for companies that are heart-based
  • Foundations that serve others would want to choose a leadership style that is more people-oriented

As a comic spin on this leadership style by cartoonist Scott Adams, the Dilbert Principle mocks bureaucratic leaders by stating that the least talented person tends to be promoted past his or her level of competence.

Benefits of bureaucratic leadership

Governments and billion-dollar companies cannot function without some form of bureaucracy. Entrepreneurs who want to grow their businesses from one store to a thousand rely on bureaucratic management as well.

This leadership style lends itself to structure, rules, and policies. It is most successful when staffed by people who are comfortable knowing what to expect and what is expected of them. It’s also required for organizations that depend on consistent results, like police departments, auto manufacturers and banks. Bureaucratic leadership depends on a strict structure for management and the need to create quality, consistent output from the workers.