Taking a trip down memory lane my second permanent job was for an aerospace company and I was the only test engineer they employed. I was responsible for designing the test equipment up to a value of about £250k a machine, I had no help or external input, it was just me. In this company I couldn't buy a fuse for the machine, I would have to get a manager to sign the authorisation. I felt "valued".
This is always felt strange (and extremely annoying) to me, none of my managers understood a single thing about what I did or how I did it. They were not in a position to judge if I was telling the truth or not, they had no choice but to trust my judgement. And yet I couldn't buy a fuse.
The root of this seems to come from an inherent distrust of employees, I could be trusted to design, build and program complex and unique test systems but if I had the power to buy stuff it would be a slippery slope, the step from fuse to Ferrari is smaller than you would think.
A quick review of LinkedIn will throw up many inspirational quotes on leadership, a true leader must handsome and true, blah blah blah. Once again this fits nicely into our patriarchal business cliche where a business is best served by a strong manager (just the right amount of macho required). This leader knows best and as followers you will run into brick walls for them.
I believe this might be OK if you are doing something simple and you have an underpaid, under-motivated workforce. Is this OK for us, is the job so simple that no mistakes will ever be made? Can our strong decisive leadership survive the chip in the veneer that making mistakes brings?
If I had a group of highly qualified and highly experienced engineers and yet they were willing to follow me without question I'd have to question their decision making.
So why are all companies dictatorships? This is a system of governance that has been proven to fail over and over. Even the most authoritarian dictatorships have some element of political democracy, some nod towards empowering their people (I personally believe choosing ones leader is a fundamental human right, so don't think I'm being sympathetic to dictatorships here).
I've worked at companies where really good engineers are so completely dis-empowered due to lack of involvement in the decision making progress it actually pains me. Every decision path the company takes the following form.
Is there an alternative?
One book I've recommended to various people is "Maverick" by Ricardo Semler. You can buy this from your local book-shop. It might be more expensive and less convenient than Amazon but they sometimes pay taxes and won't take over the world. (UK readers should try hive.co.uk).
As an old punk I've always been attracted to anarchism and this is not the black-flag, window kicking, rioting flavour. It's the collectivism of Spain in the 30's and it was actually pretty successful. I'm personally not convinced it will work for a country, but within departments of a company I think things get more interesting.
Collective decision making will take away the pressure of always having to be right, buy-in would be a given, changing direction would be as easy as getting together and having another vote. And as software engineers we have the tools for this collaborative working at our finger-tips.
Google docs, Skype, Version Control, VERSION CONTROL, Issue tracking, JIRA.... collaborative tools abound.