What is Autocratic Leadership? Explanation & Example

Autocratic Leadership

Do you have any favorite leaders in mind? Despite the likely overlap of many of these professionals’ traits, we anticipate that their leadership philosophies also differ greatly. Different approaches to leadership are used by different effective leaders. The most effective leaders you know might possess radically different styles of leadership. These methods may neatly fit into one category or they may combine different recognized leadership philosophies.

In this article, we’ll define autocratic leadership, go over the traits of autocratic leaders, outline the benefits and drawbacks of having an autocratic mindset, and talk about the future of this leadership style.

What is Autocratic Leadership?

In an authoritarian model of governance, autocratic leadership places leaders in complete control. You might think of rulers with total, top-down control over their empires, like Napoleon Bonaparte or Queen Elizabeth I. Autocratic leaders expect their followers to follow their instructions, so they make decisions based on their personal opinions of what is best and typically accept very little feedback from them.

In the 1930s, psychologist Kurt Lewin created a fundamental framework for leadership, outlining the three main leadership philosophies of autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire. Many later leadership treatises are based on Lewin’s work. In Lewin’s definition, autocratic leaders “make decisions without consulting their team members, even if their input would be useful.”

The concept of autocratic leadership has been around for a while, even though Lewin coined the phrase. It is a fundamental tenet of classic management theory, which gained popularity in the early 20th century. This theory contends that it is not necessary to consult groups of subordinates. Instead, the decision is made by the leader and then communicated to all employees in a top-down fashion.

Autocratic Leadership Styles and Approaches

Author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, who wrote the best-seller “Emotional Intelligence” in 1995, discusses leadership styles and behaviors in his later book, “Primal Leadership.” Two of the six emotional leadership styles he describes cover the characteristics of autocratic leaders.

Goleman asserts that visionary or authoritative leaders inspire by laying out a shared objective and expecting teams to find their own way there. On the other hand, commanding or coercive leaders enforce strict rules and use the threat of punishment to ensure that teams follow instructions. The two methods of dictatorial or inspirational leadership are summed up by these two leadership philosophies.

You could also define these two approaches as directing—employees are told what to do and how to do it, with little room for input—and permissive, which provides directives while leaving more room for creativity in the “how.” Paternalistic leadership is the third strategy for an autocratic rule that straddles the directing and permissive leadership spectrums. Although the leader has the final say, the well-being of the team members is the leader’s top priority.

The Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership

It doesn’t matter if the organization is for-profit or nonprofit; the autocratic leadership style’s goal is to establish centralized control and use that control to accomplish goals. This leadership style is characterized by the following:

  • minimal involvement of stakeholders. The majority of decisions—if not all—are made by the autocratic leader, with little to no room for criticism. Since decisions are made more quickly, this may increase efficiency, but it certainly does not increase team morale. The value of employees to the company is questioned if they aren’t trusted with important decisions or tasks, and they may leave the company and transfer their skills to another. Let’s say a fashion editor at a major style publication went above and beyond producing a photo shoot and story, only to learn that it got scrapped because the editor-in-chief simply didn’t like it. A subordinate can only take so much rejection from an autocratic manager, depending on how resilient they are. In this case study of a leadership style, autocratic methods may result in employee dissatisfaction and low morale.
  • a setting that is very structured. In any organization, the structure is a necessity. But in an autocracy, the atmosphere is more likely to be rigidly structured and highly structured. The benefit of this leadership approach is that tasks can be completed more quickly when it is clear who is in charge. On the other hand, a workplace that is autocratic may be too rigid. For instance, if a team member is aware that their performance is constantly being evaluated, fear may be the only thing driving them to complete the task.
  • Rules and procedures are very well defined. When a leader is autocratic, there is no doubt about who will make the ultimate decision, whether it be regarding the direction of the business or a crucial business decision. Since there is only one person in charge, things usually go smoothly and efficiently when roles, rules, and procedures are clearly defined. But by forgoing employee creativity and input, you run the risk of passing up great suggestions. Even worse, it loudly and clearly conveys the message that their creativity or input is not valued. To illustrate this point, consider the classic “suggestion box” in which employees are invited to submit their ideas to improve the company. The mere presence of a suggestion box communicates that employee feedback is welcome and just might be taken into account. Not so much in a company with an autocratic leadership structure. One, there would simply never be a suggestion box. If only one person is making all the decisions, what would be the point?
Autocratic Leadership

Examples of Autocratic Leaders

We’ll give two more contemporary examples of autocratic leadership: Richard Nixon and Elon Musk. Many empire builders and influential people throughout history have been autocratic leaders, including Genghis Khan and Margaret Thatcher.

Although Nixon was a complex leader and person, his leadership style was evident in many of his important presidential choices. President Nixon, who was regarded as an authority on foreign policy, frequently did not rely on the opinions of others, regardless of their level of knowledge, and instead made decisions based on his own experience and preferences before informing his staff and the American people. military.

Elon Musk is a prime example of the innovative side of autocratic rule. Musk’s business endeavors have been guided by his singular vision, but he rarely solicits feedback and frequently makes snap judgments without consulting the team. For instance, Musk is still having issues with the SEC following his infamous 2018 tweet in which he announced he would be taking Tesla private.

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Autocratic Leadership Pros and Cons

The 1960s saw the conception of Theory X and Theory Y by psychologist Douglas McGregor. McGregor claims that Theory X leaders are authoritarian, pessimistic about their subordinates, and think that their teams need to be directed, disciplined, or rewarded in order to accomplish organizational goals. Some of the negative aspects of autocratic rule are illustrated by McGregor’s theory.

Pros of autocratic leadership

The autocratic style typically sounds quite unfavorable. It most certainly can be when overused or applied to the incorrect people or circumstances. However, in some circumstances, such as when decisions must be made quickly without consulting with a large group of people, autocratic leadership can be helpful.

For some projects to be completed quickly and effectively, strong leadership is necessary. The autocratic style can result in quick and decisive decisions when the group’s most knowledgeable member is the leader. The autocratic leadership style can be useful in the following instances:

Provides Direction

Autocratic leadership can be effective in small groups where leadership is lacking. Have you ever collaborated on a project with a team of students or coworkers that stalled out due to poor planning, a lack of leadership, or an inability to set deadlines?

If that’s the case, it’s likely that this affected your grade or work performance. In such circumstances, a strong leader with an autocratic style can take charge of the group, assign tasks to various members, and set firm deadlines for projects to be completed.

These kinds of group projects typically function better when one person either assumes the role of leader or does so on their own. The group is more likely to complete the project on time and with equal contributions if clear roles are established, tasks are assigned, and deadlines are set.

Relieves Pressure

When there is a lot of pressure present, this leadership style can also be effective. Group members may favor an autocratic style in stressful circumstances, such as during military conflicts.

As a result, group members are free to concentrate on completing specific tasks without having to worry about making difficult choices. In the long run, this helps the success of the entire group because it enables group members to become extremely proficient at carrying out specific tasks.

Offers Structure

The autocratic style can be advantageous in the manufacturing and construction industries. Each individual must in these circumstances have a task that has been specifically assigned to them, a deadline, and rules that they must abide by.

Cons of autocratic leadership

While there are times when autocratic leadership is advantageous, there are also many situations where it can be problematic. Abusers of autocratic leadership are frequently criticized for being bossy, inflexible, and dictatorial. Members of the group may become resentful as a result of this at times.

When capable and skilled team members feel as though their knowledge and contributions are being undervalued, this can be especially problematic for the group as a whole. Group members may come to feel as though they have no input or say in how things are done. Some common problems with autocratic leadership:2

Discourages Group Input

People within the group may object to the fact that they are unable to contribute ideas because autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting the group. Additionally, researchers have found that autocratic leadership frequently results in a lack of innovative solutions to issues, which can ultimately hinder the performance of the group.

The knowledge and experience that group members might contribute to the situation is frequently ignored by autocratic leaders. The group’s success will suffer if other team members are not consulted in such circumstances.

Hurts Morale

In some situations, autocratic leadership can harm the group’s morale. When they feel as though they are making a positive impact on the group’s future, people tend to be happier and perform better. Followers begin to feel unsatisfied and stifled because autocratic leaders typically do not allow input from team members.

Why is Autocratic Leadership Important?

One of the most important advantages of autocratic leadership is the capacity for quick decision-making, which is made possible by this leadership style. The secret to achieving organizational objectives is making decisions more quickly. Only the leader will weigh the pros and cons of every option instead of the entire C-suite

Should You Use An Autocratic Leadership Style?

Organizations may be able to achieve their goals with strong central control. This can be particularly useful in settings like the emergency room of a hospital where there is little room for error. Let’s assume that an amputation is required to stop the spread of infection to the patient’s other parts of the body. That decision could only be made by the ER doctor. It would also be appropriate for a nursing leader to make decisions in an autocratic manner. For instance, you might be trusted by the nurses you supervise to make a crucial choice regarding how to treat a patient.

An example of a situation where the autocratic leadership style is inappropriate is when an advertising agency is presenting potential television commercial ideas to a client. Although the creative director may have the final say in what to show the client, they heavily rely on the expertise and distinctive skill sets of a creative team to carry out the work. Autocratic leadership simply wouldn’t function in this situation because the advertising industry prefers a more participative management style.

Although discussions about the autocratic rule are undoubtedly fascinating, not everyone enjoys it.

Autocratic Leadership

How to Avoid Being An Autocratic Leader

You are not the only person in leadership. Leadership is all about your people, your colleagues, and your teams, which I realize may come as a shock to autocratic leaders everywhere. In reality, as other leadership philosophies like servant leadership and transformational leadership make clear, effective leaders build relationships of trust, actively listen, recognize the achievements of their teams, and offer ongoing coaching.

Fortunately, my father provided me with the ideal example of how to avoid developing into an autocratic leader, and I still strive to be like him in my capacity as a leader.

Establish Trust

In order to empower people, trust is essential. In my role as a leader, I frequently mention that I want to hire people who are smarter than I am, coach them, give them resources, and support them, then get out of their way. I TRUST them to do a great job, which enables them to test out fresh concepts and absorb knowledge from both successes and failures.

In a team, trust encourages open communication and healthy relationships between members. A leader cannot inspire and motivate team members if there is no trust between them. By exchanging ideas and giving team members a chance to shine, trust can be gradually built.

Because they believe that everything must pass through them and be done their way, autocratic leaders don’t spend time fostering trust. Frustration results from this and does not foster an environment where employees can thrive.

Actively Listen

Great leaders foster a culture of collaboration and creativity by actively listening to those around them. I saw my dad acting in this way at each Boy Scout meeting. He encouraged a sense of community by being genuinely interested in hearing each scout’s thoughts and experiences. He would enlist the assistance of other adult leaders with various specialties to help with the troop’s planning.

The secret to his success was the fact that he did not know everything. He was aware of when to ask for assistance and when to hold up a flag in their support. The best and most original ideas frequently come from those who are closest to the task at hand. The ideas can become reality if given the time and space to work together with others.

One of Google’s well-known practices is giving staffers 20% of their workdays to work on original and creative projects that fall outside the normal bounds of their job responsibilities. This procedure promotes employee creativity and collaboration. This practice has generated a lot of beneficial ideas for the business, including Gmail.

Recognize and Celebrate Accomplishments

Giving credit where credit is due, effective leaders acknowledge and celebrate the successes of others. These are the kind of leaders who take the time to listen to their team members and discover their preferred method of praise. At company meetings, some employees enjoy having their names called out in front of everyone, while others prefer a more subdued “nice job.”‘

Achievements, behaviors, or results from a group or a single person should be acknowledged in a timely and specific manner. A simple “thank you” for a job well done also goes a long way. Leaders can be very creative with recognition by creating fanfare and awards.

An autocratic leader would find it challenging to publicly acknowledge and compliment their team on a regular basis, unless, of course, they are doing so for adhering to their strict instructions.

Provide Ongoing Coaching

A successful leader continuously provides coaching and makes investments in the talent on the team. In addition to giving their teams the resources they need to succeed, leaders who prioritize the growth of their teams’ perspectives, knowledge, and skills frequently concentrate on the training that each team member needs to be ready for the future. Additionally, each team member now perceives their value and opportunity for growth.

Since they already know the answers and make the decisions, I would wager that an autocratic leader would likely refuse access to opportunities for professional development for their team. It would be a waste of time and resources for the autocratic leader. Instead, because they are only carrying out the ideas of the leader, they frequently feel that people are interchangeable.

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Final Thoughts: Future of the Autocratic Leadership Style

The autocratic rule is frequently viewed as the leadership tyranny of the past. You might draw inspiration from TV depictions of poor leaders when you try to imagine what it’s like to be a boss. Think “Mad Men” or “The Office”: Top-down bosses who don’t welcome suggestions or tolerate dissent.

While there’s a positive side to autocratic leadership, the leader of the future exemplifies high emotional intelligence, demonstrating “soft skills such as communication, creative and collaborative problem-solving and conflict management,” skills that are often incompatible with autocratic styles of leadership. The days of dictatorship in leadership are behind us; the boss of the future has a softer side.