Bureaucratic Leadership: 15 Characteristics of a Bureaucracy

The symbolic representation of bureaucracy everywhere, the organization chart is an orderly visual displaying the key players in a boxes. In the above example, position titles are represented, indicating they are more important than the person who has the title. As with all of these charts, the leaders exist at the top with the many minions on the bottom. Organizational Command Structure of Luftwaffe during the Period of 1933 to 1945.


Paradoxically, executives and CEO’s of large bureaucratic organizations don’t have to be transformational leaders. Most can muddle through like everyone else simply by using authority and following the rules set-up by the bureaucracy. It’s important to understand why this is.

By Murray Johannsen. First published on March 15, 2011. Mr. Johannsen also routinely does Live Presentations for corporations and associations. Feel to connect via Linkedin, or by email.


This article takes a hard look at the defining characteristics of large bureaucracies such as government agencies and multinational corporations. It then defines the most common type of leadership style in large organizations — the bureaucratic leader.

Picture Taken in 1894

When the German sociologist Max Weber (21 April 1864 – 14 June 1920) first published his thoughts about the nature of a bureaucracy, it was a relatively new form of organization in Western Europe. Since that time, it has become the dominant organizational form for both large businesses and big government.

Do Bureaucracies Really Have Leaders?

For some, the term “bureaucratic leadership” is an oxymoron like:

  • Military intelligence,
  • Compassionate conservative,
  • Student teacher,
  • Peace force, and
  • Constant change.

One does not need to be a leader in the classic sense to run a bureaucracy. Still, it is the absence of effective bureaucratic leadership that bedevils some large organizations today.  Partly, this is due to the fact that those in positions of responsibility overuse their authority, and tend not to use other forms of personal influence.

Authority is typically the leader’s position power in an organizational structure. Power is attached to the position, not the individual. We say that CEOs have position power no matter who occupies the chair.

Adolph Menzel (1815–1905): Coronation of Wilhelm I., King of Prussia, Königsberg in 1861

But truly great leaders are flexible and use any leadership style that works in the situation, something separate from the position occupied. For example, Gandhi had no position within the government, but led a social movement for independence from the British. Even after independence, he took no official position within the Congress Party but was able to influence its direction. 

Seven Positive Characteristics of Bureaucracy

“The nail that stands out from the board, will get pounded by the hammer.” — Japanese Proverb

Painting depicting Greek military units in the WWI Victory Parade in Arc de Triomphe, Paris. 14 July 1919.

This form of organization has many strengths, but there are also weaknesses. The strengths first.

Control By the Alpha

In anthropology and sociology, the leader (the alpha) is a male or female at the top of the structure. The term alpha is used to signify that person as the most dominant member (or animal in the case of social mammals). All others are expected to submit and obey. We say that the heads of states and CEOs function as alphas.

This is good since it enables coordinated action by tribes, nation-states and corporations by the leadership top people in the hierarchy. And if the alpha is competent, things get done.

Functional Specialization

You can divide groups of individuals into special functions based on expertise or purpose. Some examples include as marketing, strategic planning, quality, human resources, engineering and so on. Functional specialists exert influence primarily through their use of expertise.

A Well-Defined Dominance Hierarchy

If you are a government employee, you can chart the bosses all the way up to a President or the Premier. In dominance hierarchies, Authority serves as the primary means of influence for those in the higher levels to influence those in the lower levels of the hierarchy. Authority is symbolically conveyed by title and level of position on the organization chart. Tribal knowledge is not the rule in bureaucracy. It’s easy to tell the degree of bureaucracy—just count the thousands of pages of policies and procedures

Numerous Written Procedures & Policies

This eases on-the-job training requirements since Joe’s boss doesn’t have to coach and mentor, he can just give the four-inch policy and procedures manual so Joe can learn the job.

Control By Policy

On of the major reasons top management love bureaucracy is a simple one— it allows them to control the actions of thousands, thousands of miles from the head office. Authority is typically conveyed through the use of policy and through regulations.

Stability And Order

Bureaucracies commonly assume the external environments don’t change; and therefore, internal organizational structure doesn’t have to change either. For example, the Washington government bureaucratic scene remained pretty much the same from 1950 until the creation of Homeland Security in 2003.

Competence Based Promotion Systems

“If you want to get promoted, just keep your nose clean and don’t break the rules.” — Advice Given to a New Hire by a Seasoned Veteran 

Promotion systems are designed to stress competency. Contrary to popular belief, higher level managers is large organizations are generally competent—generally but not always. Of course, merit is not the only factor in promotion, some large organizations have promotion systems based on seniority.

8 Negative Characteristics Of Bureaucracy

Benjamin West (1738–1820): The Cave of Despair

Despite the love of bureaucratic leaders for this structure, one finds a number of problems for the people working on the inside. One often sees surveys like the following:

In a 2005 survey of over 1,100 UK employees by Mercer Human Resource Consulting , employees revealed a high level of distrust for their management. The survey found that fewer than 4 in 10 employees (36%) trust senior managers to communicate honestly. Source: Mercer Consulting, 6 September 2005.

But that is not the only weed in the organizational garden.

Control By the Alpha

This control can be good, but it can be bad. For example, today’s CEOs clearly know how to exercise control over their minions. They have so much control in fact, that even when there are massive layoffs, there rarely are protests. These happens all to frequently, demonstrated by the largest layoff ever at Microsoft. And of course, if a psychopath gets control of a government, millions can die, but the rest go along.

Incompetence, Incompetence Everywhere

There is a famous book written In the year 1969 called, “The Peter Principle.” Basically, the Peter Principle says, “In a bureaucracy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” So you are likely to find incompetent individuals at all levels of the bureaucracy despite the best efforts of human resource professionals and conscientious managers everywhere.

In fact, one might say that the incompetence of a bureaucratic alpha gets spread throughout the entire organization. This is related to the common observation that those in positions of power rarely want someone more competent than they are working for them.

That “Helplessness” Feeling

This occurs primarily at the lower levels of the organization, but even executives have known to experience a lack of control. This condition occurs when there are too many rules, too many controls, and no way to change them.

Lack of Innovation

“A camel is the bureaucracies best effort to design a horse.”American Saying

There is a certain bureaucratic mind-set that tends to avoid creative solutions to problems. This is illustrated by the story below.

The officer in charge of a party of engineers constructing a road through a swampy section ordered a lieutenant to take fifteen men and get on with the job. Presently, the junior officer came back to see the colonel. “Sir,” he reported, “the mud is over the mens’ heads. We just can’t get through.” “Nonsense,” yelled the commanding officer. “Make out a requisition slip for whatever you need to get the job done and I’ll see that you get it.” A few minutes later, the lieutenant laid this memorandum on the CO’s desk: “Needed: Fifteen men 18 feet tall. Objective: Cross swamp 15 feet deep.

However, it must be said that some large companies in the tech area have managed to continue a long tradition of innovation even with thousands of employees. 

Responsibility Avoidance Within The White Space

“No one gets fired in this organization for NOT making a decision.”An all to common perception of those stuck in the box.

The white space refers to decisions and actions that lie between the boxes on the organization chart. Typically it’s not those decisions framed within an existing policy that are avoided, It’s the ones for which there are no policy guidelines that cause problems. 

Inversion Of Means And Ends

This is due to the primary rule of survival in the bureaucracy is to follow the rules. We have all heard variations of, “If you keep your nose clean, you’ll get promoted,” “Don’t rock the boat,” and “You can’t beat city hall.”

The primary measure of a person’s success becomes how well the rules are obeyed since the route to advancement is conformity. For example, a service representative may say, “I’m afraid you’ll have to come back and talk to Miss Jenkins—she’s the only one who can handle it for you, or “That’s not my job.”

“Glacial” Decision Making

Compared to smaller entrepreneurial organizations, decision making in large organizations occurs at a glacial pace. In slow changing environments this is not a problem. However, in environments undergoing rapid change, bureaucracies tend to adapt too slowly and can miss new opportunities completely.

Approval Straight Jackets

You’ll hears words such as, “I’ll have to check with . . .” The issue here is that every good idea, three uncreative minds have to say yes, but only one needs to say no. Of course, approval is not only human, internal regulations must also allow for the contemplated action.

Final Observations

Finally, one should keep the following in mind about working in bureaucracies:

  • Expertise is of secondary importance compared to the use of authority for bureaucratic leaders.
  • Authority is a major form of influence defining the nature of influence
  • Good ideas are always secondary compared to following the rules.
  • The status quo is preferred—change will be resisted.
  • Transactional influence tends to work better than transformational influence.

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The more you know about psychology, the better prepared you are to lead. This is due to the fact that leadership is influence, and we don’t influence things, we influence people. And the more you understand about how cognition affects behavior, the better you will understand what you see.

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Additional Resources

Henderson, A. M. & Parsons, T. (1947). Max Weber: The Theory of Social Economic Organization, New York: The Free Press.

Peter, Dr. Laurence and Hull, Raymond (1969). The Peter Principle: why things always go wrong. New York: William Morrow & Company, Inc., 179 pages.

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