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The “rulers cannot rule” phenomenon and how to avoid it

Intentions tend to get mangled by overreach in every complex organization — so dial up the charisma and the clarity.
A man is holding a red ribbon, symbolizing the confusion of bureaucracy.
Key Takeaways
  • In any large organization, an instruction will pass through many hands — and become corrupted — before it is enacted.
  • Sociologist Max Weber predicted a bureaucratic “iron cage” of efficiency-driven overreach.
  • Here we look at three ways to avoid falling victim to the “rulers cannot rule” phenomenon.

The British sitcom Yes Minister is about a member of the British government who is trying to do their job at the fictional Department of Administrative Affairs. This minister, Jim Hacker, has his ideas, plans, and instructions. He’s by no means incompetent, but he is guilty of being blown about too easily. And the wind in Yes Minster is in the form of Sir Humphrey Appleby.

Appleby is a seasoned civil servant. He’s the kind of well-educated and well-connected bureaucrat who has seen scores of ministers come and go. What happens, then, is that whenever Hacker presents a new idea or gives an instruction, Appleby will obfuscate and manipulate the matter. “Very good minister,” Appleby will say, “but have you thought of this and that?” He will confuse his bosses with polysyllabic and breathless legalese, generously seasoned with Latin or Greek. He will hope to dizzy his listeners with his honed bureaucratic babble so that he will, in the end, get his own way.

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Some of the sharpest and most astute political fictions on TV feature an equivalent of the Appleby vs Hacker dynamic. It’s when a leader tries to bring about change and tries to lead the way they want, only to be pulled up short by the bean-counting, teeth-sucking civil servants armed with red tape. Any complex organization at all depends on an administrative structure. A legislature tells an executive what to enact. A leader tells their bureaucrats what to do. A boss tells their employees what they want to happen.

Sometimes, though, the system gets in the way. Rulers cannot rule. Here we look at why that is and how to mitigate the problem.

Bureaucratic overreach

The problem, in politics and business, is that any complex organization will involve an element of “Chinese whispers” or “telephone.” When a boss or a line manager gives an instruction, it will get more and more diluted, interpreted, doctored, and selectively ignored the further it goes down an organizational structure. And, just like in the game of telephone, the final enacted action can sometimes bear only passing resemblance to the leader’s intentions.

Tsar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia, once said, “I do not rule Russia, ten thousand clerks do.” His point was that no matter what he wanted to happen, he was just one man fighting against a bureaucratic behemoth. Once his orders were out the door, who knew who would listen to them or not? When the tsars gave way to the USSR, Russia’s overbearing civil service didn’t go away. Soviet Russia was forever characterized by absurd, pedantic bureaucracy. In Hitler’s Germany, top-down instructions were deliberately few, so that the upper echelons of the Nazi Party were constantly “working towards the Führer.” Various regional administrators and army generals took decisions based on what they thought Hitler wanted. Bureaucrats were in charge.

Nor is the “rulers cannot rule” phenomenon limited to dictatorships. A hundred years ago, the sociologist Max Weber worried that societies would slowly become restricted by an “iron cage” of overreaching bureaucracy. He argued that traditional and value-based social systems would give way to efficiency-driven, rule-based structures as modern society became more rationalized and bureaucratic by nature. Weber died in 1920 at only 56, and he didn’t see the modern world of congressional gridlock and legislative paralysis that occasionally plague democracies. They’ve likely proven him right.

Rulers allowed to rule

Is the iron cage an unavoidable and irrevocable feature of any complex organization, or can we take steps to avoid it? In some ways, there will always be certain differences between what is asked for and what is received, but there are ways to limit the Chinese Whispers effect embedded in a long chain of command. Here, we look at three:

Make room for charisma. For Weber, the iron cage has a key, and it’s called “charisma.” Weber was worried that in the beige cubicles of bureaucracy, there could be no room for verve and spark. Efficiency, cost-cutting, and practicalities are important, but they don’t get things moving. All organizations need an engine. They need that kind of momentum and optimism that trickles through the entire lattice of a workplace. Charismatic leaders might not be efficient, and magnetic personalities might not be good with a spreadsheet, but they often get things done. Lee Iacocca, Jack Welch, and Steve Jobs all had their faults, but their superstar charisma was like rocket fuel for their companies.

Be clear about what you want. Only half of employees will say they know exactly what their bosses want. That means that the other half is having to deal with guesswork and best efforts. To avoid an instruction going wayward, be as clear as possible. Set deadlines and be specific. There was a meme a few months ago about a girlfriend talking to her boyfriend like a ChatGPT prompt. “Imagine you are an award-winning dish cleaner. In no less than ten minutes, clean the pans using the blue cloth. Use hot water and stack on the drying rack in rows.” It was a joke, but there’s a point to be made here. Humans, like large language models, often respond better to clear, direct, and thorough instruction.

Have hard conversations. In Yes Minster, there are clearly moments when Hacker needs to put Sir Appleby in his place. The bureaucrat is not the leader. Hacker needs to say something along the lines of, “Thank you for your advice, Sir Appleby, but this is what we will be doing.” Likewise, in any company, you will have to have hard conversations with people who are getting it wrong. No one likes having difficult conversations; humans are a species wired to mostly avoid conflict. Sometimes, though, if an old hand is refusing to get on board with a new direction or if a middle manager is ignoring what upper management is telling them, then you need to have a hard conversation. Luckily, Big Think+ has you covered. Here is Amy Gallo, contributing editor at the Harvard Business Review and author of the HBR Guide to Dealing with Conflict, explaining the three essential ways to get through — and succeed in — a hard conversation.

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