Would you rather work in an atmosphere of enlightenment or repression?

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I recently spent two weeks on vacation exploring Portugal, a country with a rich mix of culture, history and geography. We toured everything from Neolithic sites to Roman ruins to Moorish forts as well as many castles of Portuguese royalty and many Catholic churches. We also visited schools where the Portuguese developed and launched naval expeditions. For a good dose of history and Portuguese culture, we toured modern democratic institutions, some of which are still quite fragile from the Salazar dictatorship era that ended in 1974.

While there were many interesting patterns to be learned from this lengthy and rich history, the pattern that struck me most was the differences in leadership, from a period of liberalism to extreme rigidity.

Portugal’s culture flourished during the periods when education was encouraged and economic equality was promoted. During this time, there were incredible works of art and great advances in economics, industry, global exploration and, of course, leadership. Everything was fluid and functioning like a well-oiled machine. Needless to say, Portugal was prospering during these periods.

Intermingled throughout its history, however, Portugal has had periods of extreme repression, such as the “re-conquest” of the Moors, the expulsion of the Jews, the Inquisition, the dominance of the Catholic Church and the Salazar dictatorship. During these periods of centralized repression, thousands were killed and imprisoned. As the bad periods became more and more frequent, overshadowing the periods of enlightenment, Portugal soon regressed into a backward and impoverished nation.

This observation got me thinking about how similar traits can exist in leadership today. Companies can certainly be differentiated by whether or not, at any given time, they are relatively more democratic and decentralized in regards to leadership and which ones are more centralized and authoritarian. My observation of these different leadership styles and the impact of them parallel my observation of Portugal.

Those companies that practice openness, education, equality (including income equality), tend to do better than those where corporate repression — a harsh but applicable word here — is the norm.

Put it this way: Would you rather work in an organization where learning to navigate boldly around the world is the norm, like the time period of Henry the Navigator? Or would you like to work in an organization where repression and dictatorship is the norm, like during the Inquisition?

This seems like a stark, but easy comparison.

This entry was posted here. It was reprinted with permission from the author.

William Seidman

Dr. William Seidman is the CEO of Cerebyte, Inc., a company focusing on creating high performing organizational cultures. He has worked as a manager or consultant with many large and small organizations including Hewlett-Packard, Jack in the Box, Intel, Tektronix, CVS Pharmacies, and Sears. He is co-founder and chief executive officer of Cerebyte, Inc., co-author (with Rick Grbavac) of award winning, The Star Factor. Dr. Seidman earned his doctorate at Stanford University.
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