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Autocratic Leadership Explained by a CEO, Pros/Cons, Examples

Updated September 26, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Sadly, I have met quite a number of autocratic leaders during my fifteen years as a leader in the private industry. The style has a very bad reputation I would say, and you should avoid using it. If you are using autocratic leadership, chances are you are unaware of it.

What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership is when the leader holds all the decision power and rarely consults others. Autocratic leadership is unpopular, has many disadvantages, and leads to low engagement and sometimes to a toxic environment. Autocratic leadership is useful in crisis when control and fast decisions are crucial.

Continue reading or visit our overview page with access to articles on more than 25 leadership styles, most of them better than autocratic leadership. Check if you are an autocratic leader in our Lewin Leadership Styles Test, or consider getting my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon)

“It’s my way or the highway!”
Sound familiar? Say hello to Mr. Autocratic Leader.
Arguably the most despised leadership style, autocratic leadership has often been likened to dictatorship. It brings back painful memories of some of the worst leadership tyrants in history, such as Adolf Hitler. However, autocratic leadership does truly have a place if used right. Read on to learn more about autocratic leadership and how you can use it properly as one of the leadership styles in your toolbox.

Continue reading or watch our video on the Kurt Lewin Leadership Styles, which includes Autocratic Leadership, right here:

What is Autocratic Leadership?

Autocratic leadership is essentially based on the following:

  • Central authority is strong and decisions are taken without asking others (essentially the opposite of democratic leadership)
  • Followers are to a certain level motivated by fear and with awards, threats, and punishment
  • A strong, confident autocratic leader that is trusted by the followers

The autocratic leader doesn’t have to be a bad, evil, and rude person though, even if it sounds like it when one reads the above bullets. In many cases, it is a person who is simply assertive, doesn’t take no for an answer, and expects total and complete obedience – without being a monster.

Autocratic leadership can start out with obedience through fear, which can later transition to actual trust in the leader. If the autocratic leader honors his or her word, and frame organizational success so that it is credited to the leader and the leader’s decisions the trust will start to build. After a while, the followers will start to follow orders based on trust rather than fear and the power of the autocratic leader can continue to build.
Fear without trust is more likely to lead to the followers refusing to obey, challenging, or even disposing of the leader somehow.

The autocratic leader has to calibrate the fear of punishment and other types of pressure properly. Too much fear and people will leave or revolt, too little, and they will drop in performance. If you build your leadership on obedience, there must be a consequence to disobedience, right?

In the end, unless the autocratic leader is put into place by someone of higher authority, pure terror, or by also using charismatic leadership, he or she will need some sort of legitimacy in order to be obeyed continuously. The authority to punish is one thing, but having a track record of success for the leader as well as the followers lead to long-term legitimacy and that autocracy is more likely to survive the test of time. (You can read more about charismatic leadership and many other styles through our overview page: leadership styles).

There is a certain lure with autocracy and its simplicity. It’s not uncommon to hear historic examples of the strong, autocratic leader, who took power and brought people towards glory. 

When is Autocratic Leadership likely?

Autocratic leadership can, right or wrong, be used in multiple situations, but two situations are specifically worth mentioning. These are when an organization has built-in autocratic leadership and also when an organization of some sort needs an autocratic leader so much that he or she is almost referred to as a savior that has come to quickly solve all the problems.[1]

Autocratic leadership built into the organization

There are certain organizations where autocratic leadership is ingrained in the organization itself. In those cases, retaining and continuing the autocratic leadership can even be part of the goals of the organization.
Autocratic organizations assume and expect their leaders to be autocratic leaders within a preset framework of rules and regulations. Military organizations can serve as examples of this. In this setting, an autocratic leader is much less likely to be challenged and does not need to spend as much time establishing his or her leadership. The autocratic leader is sanction by the organization and the authority given to him or her. A shift supervisor in a factory is much more likely to be challenged and questioned by subordinates than a drill sergeant in the army is, right? This is because of the embedded autocratic leadership within the organization. Even if authority is part of an organization, it might be better to use commanding/directive leadership (find those styles here: leadership styles) as a contingency style among others, rather than using a behavioral style such as autocratic leadership.

The Autocratic leader as a savior

Sometimes there are numerous different groups that need to coexist in a country or an organization. These groups might have cultural, ethnic, identity, or belief differences to name a few possible areas of conflict. If several groups cannot find a way to agree and conflicts keep surfacing, there is room for an autocratic leader to emerge. Someone who can bring closure to the conflicts and reinstate harmony within the full population or organization, all be it with tough methods.

Josip Tito, the old leader of the former state of Yugoslavia is sometimes seen as an example of this type of autocrat. He managed to unite several different groups and create harmony, at least for the time being. Tito was known for his autocratic leadership and brutal methods. 

In other situations, a country or organization might be in such a bad state that people are hoping for “the one” to show up and save the day. In a deep crisis, when people feel like everything has tried, it can be very comforting if someone shows up and takes charge to move things in a positive direction. This type of savior autocratic leader is often also a charismatic person who combines the autocratic leadership style with the charismatic leadership style to some extent. (Charismatic leadership info is available among our articles here: leadership styles.)

What are the three types of autocratic leadership?

Some sources mention that the autocratic leadership style can be applied in three ways: directing, permissive or paternalistic. Each style is explained in more detail below this overview image.

Feel free to use the image, as long as you link back to this page.

1. Directing version of autocratic leadership

Employees are explicitly told what to do, how to do it, and when it should be done in the directing format. This is considered the most common version of autocratic leadership. It also involves tight control and monitoring of the people executing the tasks. Essentially, orders are given, orders are followed, just like in directive/coercive/commanding leadership. No questions or input expected. (More info on those and other styles right here: leadership styles.)

2. Permissive version of autocratic leadership

The leader makes the decision but allows employees to choose how to complete assigned tasks to a certain extent. The permissive autocrat allows some creativity and uses some of the knowledge and experience within the organization when it comes to how execution should be done.

3. Paternalistic version of autocratic leadership

Finally, the paternalistic form has employee well-being as the primary concern. However, the leader still directs and makes the final decision. In some cases, this is actually seen as its own leadership style and not a version of autocratic leadership. As the name paternalistic reveals, this is an approach of a classic father figure. Input might be allowed but it is easily disregarded without comment if the paternalistic autocrat decides so. The paternalistic autocrat ”knows what is best” for the people. Perhaps one could even say this is a dictatorial version of servant leadership? That would probably be a stretch. (Reach servant leadership in our styles portal: leadership styles.)

In sources not mentioning the above different versions, the directing version is basically seen as the definition of autocratic leadership.

In my opinion, the most extreme difference between the autocratic leadership style versus most of the other leadership styles, is the complete lack of input from others. The leader makes the decisions without the advice of others. Period.

Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

What are the origins of Autocratic Leadership?

Autocratic leadership is as old as humanity itself. Ever since the first people started forming groups, there have been autocratic leaders. Someone essentially took charge, and it was probably often the strongest one of the bunch, i.e. an alpha male type person. The future of the group depended on the skill set and decisions made by this leader. A good group with a good leader survived, whereas the weak ones with poor leadership succumbed.

In times of crisis or conflict, autocratic leaders are more likely to take control. The other side of the coin: leaders who are exposed to stress and challenges are more likely to lean towards being more autocratic, a defensive behavior to retain control.

What does the word autocratic mean?
The definition of autocratic leadership can be found in the word “autocratic” which has Greek origins. Autocratic comes from the Greek root words “auto”, which means self, and “kratos” which means power. Therefore, autocracy is all about self-power. In other words, one person has absolute power. This person is responsible for making all the decisions.

Kurt Lewin, a German-born American psychologist, is credited for coining the term autocratic (or authoritarian) leadership style in the 1930s as part of the three leadership styles by Lewin and running several leadership experiments analyzing the autocratic, democratic leadership, and laissez-faire leadership styles. In general, autocratic leaders hold all the decision power and the organization is normally entirely dependent on the leader to make the decisions. (Here is a comparison article if you are interested: autocratic leadership vs. laissez-faire leadership. Read more about the Lewin leadership experiments as well if you are interested.)

What are the Pros and Cons of Autocratic Leadership?

There are some advantages and disadvantages to the autocratic leadership style. I dare to state that the disadvantages outweigh the advantages. The autocratic leadership style is rather unpopular, and the heavyweight on the disadvantage side is one of the reasons. I would consider using other leadership styles – see our main article here: leadership styles.

Advantages of Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership has some strong advantages although these do not compensate for the detrimental disadvantages of the style.

The advantages of Autocratic Leadership are:

1. High clarity on structure and roles

Organizations with autocratic leaders usually have very clear lines and borders in between different areas. The employees have clear and strict job descriptions and know what to do and what is expected of them. This kind of clarity means comfort to a lot of people since there are fewer unexpected events and people generally know what to expect from the organization and its leadership. 

2. Quick decision making

Depending on the circumstances, being able to make fast decisions and go into execution mode can be a strong advantage. This especially applies in terms of crisis and uncertainty when quick reactions to internal and external changes are required. Sometimes waiting for a decision can be devastating.

3. Improved crisis management

Autocratic leaders are used to be in charge and they know what is expected of them in terms of decision-making. This type of confidence and pressure reduces the risk of the leader remaining indecisive or ignoring the need for a decision. Furthermore, there is no time to sit down and ask around to build support for your decision in a crisis situation. This is where an autocratic leader comes to his or her right. 

4. Strong guidance increases the performance of inexperienced team members

Inexperienced employees can become productive very quickly under an autocratic leader. Orders from a more experienced individual can mean you start doing the right things immediately without hesitation. Less confusion, less uncertainty, less sitting around for inexperienced employees who are unsure of what to do. By following the direct instructions, they immediately go into “production”. 

5. Strong target focus

As long as the autocratic leader knows the direction, you can expect targets to be clear and the focus on achieving those targets to be very high. Completing the mission is more important than anything else. Again, this brings clarity to the team members and they can easily focus on those targets with less risk of distractions. Similar focus, but without the strong autocratic streaks, can be found in pacesetting leadership. (You can find that style among 25 others on our page here: leadership styles.)

Disadvantages of Autocratic Leadership

The disadvantages of autocratic leadership totally overshadow the advantages, which is an additional reason to avoid using autocratic leadership unless completely necessary.The disadvantages of Autocratic Leadership are:

1. It requires total control

Autocratic leadership requires control, and micromanagement is part of autocratic leadership. After all, how would you know which orders to give if you do not know the details of the situation and the progress so far? This aspect can reduce the possibility of the team members completing their tasks since they might have to wait for the next round of directives from their leader – thus making the leader a bottleneck.

2. Lack of empowerment

The lack of empowerment among the team members means that even low-level decisions need to await input from the leader, jeopardizing productivity in the process. Furthermore, low empowerment leads to low employee engagement and low accountability. If you are always doing what you are told, you will not feel accountable for the outcome. Low accountability for decisions means no ownership.

3. Strong dependency on the skills of the autocratic leader

The culture and performance of the organization depend on the values of the autocratic leader. Poor values lead to poor work culture. Poor decisions will lead to poor outcomes. If a low-skilled person with little experienced becomes an autocratic leader, the outcome can be disastrous. This leader will take the wrong decisions, leading to poor results which will threaten the existence of the organization in the long term.

4. Too high dependency on the leader

Unless the organization is built up with an autocratic system, switching the top leader may be very difficult. All the clarity, rules and decision-making is ingrained in one person and the will of that person. What will happen if the leader is inaccessible or unavailable for some time? Plenty of decisions will simply sit and wait to be taken and the whole organization might grind to a halt. Switch him or her out to another person and the basic platform everything rests upon is at stake.

5. Complete lack of trust

The leader doesn’t trust in team members and that is detrimental for engagement, team identity, accountability, and many other things. Lack of trust can turn into people suspecting each other for wrongdoings, and in the long term, it can even turn into paranoia.

6. Use of intimidation

Some autocratic leaders use intimidation to obtain obedience. If people are scared of you, they might do what they are told, but they will not be loyal to you. Oppressed team members will undermine the leader or leave the organization. 

Perhaps disadvantage number five is one of the worst. If there is no trust between the autocratic leader and the team, there is highly unlikely to be decent trust between the team members either. Number five is the reason for one, two, and four so the lack of trust essentially snowballs into larger problems. The members of a team need to cooperate in order to develop the team itself as well as the organization and trusting each other is an essential part of achieving that. No trust means very little development according to my experience.

Do you have autocratic tendencies? That can be very important to know. For a better understanding of the negative effects, read our article on motivation here: How Autocratic Leadership affects employee motivation and engagement.
Look at all the other available styles you can use instead of autocratic leadership, most of them lack these serious downsides, such as visionary leadership, transformational leadership, servant leadership, etc. Find them in our overview here: leadership styles.

Does Autocratic Leadership Have a Place?

Autocratic leadership does sometimes have a place in the leadership journey. Leonard Schaeffer, the former CEO of Blue Cross California, indicated that “as the company changed, the top-down autocratic style that he had to adopt to turn the business around gave way to a more hands-off style that focused on motivating others to act rather than managing them directly.”[2] His experience supports the belief that the autocratic leadership style is best used when control is necessary and there is no room for error. In his case, he had to assume more control to transform Blue Cross California from the worst-performing Blue Cross companies to one of the best. Please note that the autocratic leadership style was temporarily used and then replaced by another style once the imminent need for autocracy was no longer there. This is key when it comes to using the autocratic leadership style – it is one style among many, and they all have their moments. Ensure you switch between leadership styles as appropriate and you can get a fantastic result. This is why a contingency, or situational, approach is better than aligning with a specific set of behaviors to use consistently regardless of the circumstances. Refer to the many styles you can use in our main article on leadership styles.

Where is autocratic leadership more common?

Certain industries, such as the military, manufacturing, and construction, require autocratic leadership to a certain extent. Not everybody can and shall make decisions – sometimes there has to be a chain of command. However, having a chain of command does not mean you are applying an autocratic leadership style. In fact, this approach is present in other leadership styles as well, perhaps to the extreme in the bureaucratic leadership style (you can find our detailed article on that bureaucratic leadership here: leadership styles). Most leaders in the aforementioned industries definitely benefit from getting input and establishing empowerment from and within their teams. There often must be a high level of control over processes in these industries so that the right output is consistently produced but again, this does not require you to turn to autocratic leadership.

Some situations where autocratic leadership can be used with acceptable results:

  • When team members have little to no motivation or desire to achieve results, an autocratic leader can assign clear responsibilities and push through for results. Transactional leadership might also be one way forward here.
  • Quick decision-making. In times of crisis or when additional brainstorming and seeking advice is not possible, quick decisions are a must and this is one of the strengths of the autocratic leadership style.
  • Familiarizing new team members with a role so that time isn’t wasted.

How Can Autocratic Leaders Be Effective?

Autocratic leaders can be effective if they pay attention to these key characteristics of a healthy workplace. Here is some relatively common advice on how to be more effective as an autocratic leader. I see one major problem though: most of the advice is basically to become less of an autocratic leader. Perhaps the autocratic leader should ask him or herself another question: should I stop being an autocratic leader or at least only use that leadership style on rare occasions? There are plenty of other ways of leading, refer to our main article on leadership styles.
Anyway, for what it’s worth, here comes the advice.

1. Be Open to Opinions

Employees want to feel as though their opinions are valued. In fact, there may be some nuggets of wisdom in what they say. An autocratic leader may not act on the suggestion, but it’s important to at least listen and be open to the elements that may be useful to make the organization more effective. This can easily be achieved by using a democratic/participative style or a transformational leadership style for example.

2. Set Clear Rules and Stick to Them

Autocratic leaders tend to be good at setting rules and procedures. However, these rules and procedures are sometimes unclear to employees. Communication should be clear so that employees clearly understand expectations. Additionally, employees lose respect for an inconsistent leader. So, the autocratic leader should ensure that he or she consistently enforces the rules.

3. Give Employees the Training and Resources They Need

Meeting the demands of an autocratic leader is often difficult. Couple that with inadequate training and resources and completing these tasks becomes impossible. The leader will end up with highly frustrated workers and the organization is less likely to succeed. This need can be better satisfied through a coaching leadership style approach.

4. Praise and Reward Employees

Praise can create employees who are more productive and are better problem solvers[3]. Employees want to be recognized for the work they do. Rewarding and praising employees based on set criteria has the potential to boost staff morale and create more loyal employees. Need inspiration? Check out Affiliative leadership to learn more about praise and recognition.

5. Avoid Being a Micromanager

Trust is an important part of leadership, but it is also one of the things autocratic leaders tend to struggle with. An autocratic leader should learn to trust those appointed to lead various divisions of the company. Trying to manage everything makes the systems within the organization ineffective.  

In the end, it would be a good thing if autocratic leaders simply stopped being autocratic leaders. You can find the coaching leadership and affiliate leadership styles on our main page: leadership styles. I also suggest you learn more of the side effects of autocratic leadership by for instance reading our article the impact of autocratic leadership here: How Autocratic Leadership affects employee motivation and engagement.

What is the Psychology of an Employee Who Prefers an Autocratic Leadership Style?

Mark Murphy at Leadership IQ identified seven personality traits of an employee who prefers an autocratic leadership style[4]:

  • Follows the rules
  • Prefers rules and rigid structures
  • Loves consistent routines
  • Risk-averse
  • Comfortable remaining where they are
  • Make decisions by careful, detailed analysis

Psychological assessments are becoming a more and more common feature of the hiring process. An autocratic leader can use these assessments to ensure that the people with the right skills and personality traits are hired. These people are more likely to be comfortable with the autocratic leadership style and stay with the organization in the long term.

Personally, I think it would be better to avoid using the autocratic leadership style rather than finding the right followers for it. Especially since there are more than a dozen more useful and popular ones to choose from. As Mark Murphy also mentions in his article, citing a study by Kurt Lewin, 19 out of 20 prefer democratic leadership rather than autocratic leadership. So, why struggle to make autocratic leadership work instead of spending time on developing yourself to use other leadership styles instead?

My own experience of Autocratic leadership

During my career, I have used the autocratic leadership style purposely several times, or rather the related situational style directive/coercive leadership. However, I am using a multitude of leadership styles and I truly encourage you to do the same.

The occasions when I have used autocratic leadership have typically been any of these:

  • Time has been scarce, and imminent decisions were required
  • An employee needed a more autocratic leadership approach on my part
  • There was a need to “snap people out of” bad behavior
  • When being put in charge of a failing team

All these situations would require an article of their own to really make the stories justice. I will avoid too much detail in the following descriptions:

Time was scarce, autocratic decisions were required

This has happened on several occasions. Sometimes the consequence of not making a decision will be even worse than taking the wrong decision. I have not taken the decisions on my own because I wanted to, I have taken the decisions fast and on my own because I felt I had to. I am using the phrasing “I felt” purposely since critical situations can be perceived as requiring instant decisions when you are in the actual situations, often to realize afterward that you indeed had additional time. It´s always easier after the fact. Stepping up to the plate and making fast decisions when it is required makes me a leader because that is what a leader sometimes must do. It does not make me an autocratic leader. The purely autocratic leader prefers making decisions on his or her own, not just when circumstances force this, but rather as often and as much as possible. So, don´t stay away from making decisions because you don´t want to be perceived as an autocrat. Just make the decisions in the right way and always seek other opinions when there is time for it.

An employee needed a more autocratic approach

As mentioned previously in this article, there are people who actually prefer or even need an autocratic leader. In this particular case, I had an employee who was afraid of making his own decisions. The reasons could be many – self-doubt, fear of failure, wanting to have someone to blame, who knows what else. It became apparent to me that this individual got very stressed when a decision came up and kept pushing it to the future, procrastinating instead. He asked me, as his boss, to tell him what to do repeatedly, but I refused to comply. Instead, I tried to coach him into finding a good way forward. This partially worked but the angst and stress of this man kept increasing, which in turn affected people around him as well as his output.

I finally concluded that this was a time when you should leverage people’s skills instead of repeatedly focusing on their flaws and embraced the situation. I started to give him more strict decisions and more detailed guidance and the guy, who was good at executing, could move forward swiftly and comfortably without losing any motivation. Not everybody desires self-leadership, empowerment, and making big decisions, it is as simple as that.

During the same time period, I acted like a totally different leader, using other leadership styles, for other direct reports who were in fact more empowered and made more decisions on their own than they had in a long time.

Some employees thrive when given detailed directions by an autocratic leader.

There was a need to “snap people out of” bad behavior

I was once in a situation where the management team I was running broke down in blame games, lack of performance, and general demotivation. I tried for some time to coach and push each of them in the right direction to have the team members mend their own team essentially. This failed in the time given and we needed to make a big change in a short time. Hence, I simply laid out the truth at the next team meeting and told them what was going on in the team and how unacceptable it was. My tone was not nice. I continued declaring how it should be and what they needed to do in order to get moving in that direction. It worked. The team was much happier afterward and we all continued in a positive direction after this.

Calling people out on bad behaviors and telling them what they must do instead can be an autocratic thing to do for sure. My perception of the situation was built from multiple conversations with the team as a whole and all the team members individually. That last thing is not anything an autocratic leader would normally do, it’s rather a democratic, transformational or affiliative type of leadership. (Find those styles here: leadership styles) Bear in mind that the team members did not know how much time I had spent with them all individually, so I might definitely have been perceived as an autocrat at that moment. No one would have challenged me due to my demeanor and tone at that moment. This was not supposed to be a discussion, this was all about me telling them to stop the current behavior and do something entirely different.

They did all know me and had seen me in many other types of situations, so being autocratic in that one moment did not make them see me as an autocrat or a dictator. My acting rather underlined the seriousness and the strong message that this must change now. I know pretty well how this was perceived since I asked many of them later on. They all agree this was needed.

So again, taking charge and being tough every now and then does not make you an autocratic leader. It is the constant return to the autocratic leadership style and having consistently autocratic behavior as described above that makes you an autocratic leader.

When being put in charge of a failing team

I was once put in charge of a failing organization that needed some substantial changes done. As described above in the case of Leonard Schaeffer, I needed to be very directive and tough in the beginning to get things moving. As we gained speed moving forward, a few wins made people believe in themselves more and my pushing made them understand they had to reach a higher level of performance and we moved into transformational leadership instead.

The combination of being forced to improve with seeing the gained traction and getting to feel like a winning team again caused magic. We were back in a positive circle rather than a vicious one. I was never a full-on autocratic leader since I build most of my leadership on listening and involving others, but I was much more autocratic than I normally am.

Slowly, as we progressed, I kept stepping back further and further until the team was very empowered and also very proud of what they achieved together. At that point, I focused much more on the coaching and visionary aspects of leadership.

I have read a lot of books during my career, and they have helped me tremendously when it comes to developing my empathy, learning to read others, understanding how to lead, persuade and convince as required. This means that true autocratic behavior has been a rarely used, and final resort for me.

Continue reading or find information on the above-mentioned democratic, coaching, affiliative, visionary, transformational, and commanding leadership styles here: leadership styles.

Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

Who Are Some Examples of Autocratic Leaders?

It is a struggle to find proper examples of autocratic leaders that aren´t also dictators. There are multiple lists on the internet that often include Adolf Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Pol Pot, and many other bad characters from history. These lists quickly become extensive lists of dictators though, and a dictator is not the same thing as an autocratic leader. So, for what it is worth, here are three examples of autocratic leaders that are not or were not dictators.

Napoleon Bonaparte is often mentioned as an example of an autocratic leader.

Martha Stewart (1941 – present) – Owner of MarthaStewart.com

Martha Stewart built her $640 million empire through keen attention to detail and demanding expectations of her employees. Rebekah Gross describes Stewart as “a perfectionist who expects the same of all who work for her.”[5] She goes on to say that Stewart is “convinced her way of doing things is the right way and is often condescending of those who work for her.”

Howell Raines (1943-present)- Former Executive Editor of the New York Times

The New York Times was Howell Raines’ abode from 2001 to 2003. His decisions were final, and he would allocate large financial resources to support what he believed would be lead stories. This isn’t an uncommon practice in the publishing world. Under the reign of Howell Raines, the New York Times won eight Pulitzer Prizes. It has been stated that the newspaper employees feared Raines and that only his ideas were acted upon. In the end, not listening was part of Raines’s downfall since he kept publishing the work of a journalist who used improper methods despite warnings from others in the newsroom.[6]

Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)- Hotelier and Real Estate Investor

Everything had to be done Hensley’s way. This led to discord amongst her employees and one of them leaked her company’s financial records. She was imprisoned for tax evasion. Her autocratic leadership style may have helped her earn billions, but she won enemies in the workplace.

What are the Differences Between Autocratic Leadership and Dictatorship?

Autocratic leadership and dictatorship tend to be used interchangeably. However, there are stark differences between these leadership styles. See these examples.

  • A dictator tends to use more charismatic leadership than an autocrat.
  • Autocrats are less likely to make extreme decisions that will severely hurt the people they lead.
  • Dictators are ultimately autocratic leaders who develop a God Complex where the leader disregards society’s conventions and has an overinflated perception of personal ability and privilege. 

As I see it, a dictator is an autocrat out of control. (We have an article on charismatic leadership as well, you can find it here: leadership styles.)

A true autocratic leader makes all the decisions.

Recommended reading

For starters, I would like to recommend my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon), which teaches you everything about these three styles including how to use them properly.

Here are some recommended articles in case you want to learn more about non-autocratic leadership. Above all, check out our overview portal here: Leadership styles. About the impact of autocratic leadership: How Autocratic Leadership affects employee motivation and engagement.

Read more about the framework autocratic leadership belongs to here: The Kurt Lewin leadership styles, with the democratic leadership and the laissez-faire leadership styles.

Try our Lewin leadership styles test (new tab) to see if you are an autocratic, democratic, or laissez-faire leader.

Comparison with other leadership styles: Autocratic leadership compared to laissez faire leadership, or transformational leadership compared to autocratic leadership.


[1] A Handbook of Leadership Styles, Cambridge Scholars Publishing

[2] https://hbr.org/2002/10/the-leadership-journey
[3] https://www.virgin.com/entrepreneur/praising-employees-leads-higher-productivity-research-finds
[4] https://www.leadershipiq.com/blogs/leadershipiq/autocratic-leadership-new-data-reveals-who-likes-it
[5] https://sites.psu.edu/leaderfoundationsdobbs/2017/02/12/style-maven-martha-stewart-the-dark-side-of-her-leadership/
[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/15/us/editor-of-times-tells-staff-he-accepts-blame-for-fraud.html

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