A benevolent dictatorship, as defined in Wikipedia, is a form of government in which an authoritarian leader exercises political power for the benefit of the whole population rather than exclusively for his or her own self-interest or benefit or for the benefit of only a small portion of the population.
A former work colleague defined it as "getting you to agree to my good ideas". Even if we stick to the definition, which in and of itself promotes a healthy form of leadership, the title or phrase "benevolent dictatorship" still doesn't sound too pretty. It is the latter word that throws the whole title into dismay but the underlying principle stands true and the idea of exercising authority for the sake and interest of the whole organization is a good one. In the agile and lean world, we tend to react the same way to titles or references to management teams that we see in companies as well.
In Management 3.0, Appelo makes the point that the term leadership, used in the place of management, is not necessarily the right word since when referring to those in executive management as leadership we infer that others in the organization can't necessarily lead or be viewed as leaders due to the way terms and titles are used. This point rings true and no matter how our organizations are organized we need to be conscious of how we apply titles and terms and how we communicate them across the whole company.
The challenge we face, however, is that in the enterprise space (unlike the software industry) we can't simply shift organizational models to do away with titles and terms and replace them with what we might consider more agile leadership or lean executive management oriented ones, at least not yet and not as straightforward as we might want. Titles and references to those titles and teams in large enterprises have meaning and reference to how things operate.
In one of Mike Cohn's blog posts titled The Role of Leaders on a Self-Organizing Team, the statement that self-organizing teams are not free from management control is indeed true. Maybe at this point, you're wondering what exactly is the point, after all, you understand the concept of self-organizing teams and you also get that managers are still needed to manage and run parts of the company. Yes, all true but perhaps this article is more for the enterprise executives and managers who are entrenched in the day to day grind of running an operation or a global business and are now equally entrenched in trying to figure out the right management model for adopting an agile/lean approach since someone told them it all has to change.
The truth is that every enterprise company I know and have worked with refers to certain people in the organization as the leadership team. Hierarchy still reigns supreme in most large global companies and when we look at organizational change and how to best shape it, doing away with this type of hierarchy is not likely or even possible. Refining it, however, in incremental, more focused ways is possible and is often the catalyst for adoption at the wider level. More simply stated, creating a flatter organization that is still managed well with structure and agility is possible when done at the department or program level vs. an attempt to do it en masse from the outset.
Embedding agile/lean thinking and leadership in a large, global company is not for the faint of heart nor is it to be handled like an ERP implementation. It is a series of quick wins that we can measure along the way and create a pull model within the organization rather than pushing it on everyone. Most of us go on our experience and mine tells me that it is okay to tell enterprise customers that their organizational change initiatives, meant to support the adoption of an agile/lean way of working, will still require executive/senior leadership that can lead and support the cause and still empower teams to get things done - it's not one or the other, it's both and while I do agree with the point of empowering people and communicating to them in a fashion that supports leadership at all levels, enterprise companies can actually leverage their existing organizational models to support adoption vs. needing to radically change them.
The idea of benevolent dictatorship then, in this case, could apply at all levels in the organization. This means that you have people contributing their ideas and insights for the betterment of the whole program/team/department/company but you still have a key decision maker that must take ownership to move the best ideas forward. It is exactly this emphasis on the whole team vertically from executive level to project level that we must ensure the thinking is applied and embedded.
One final point as this relates to enterprise companies. It is not the organizational models that we need to get hung up on and what they call people within them as much as it is ensuring that the right people are in the right roles. It is getting people to agree to the ideas that are good and right for that company and aligning it to those that will get it done.