Sadly, I have met quite the 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, but it does have a place.
What is Autocratic Leadership Style?
Autocratic Leadership is when the leader holds literally all the decision power. It is likely to be the best option in times of crisis when fast decisions are an absolute must. Autocratic leadership has many disadvantages and is considered to be one of the least popular leadership styles.
“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 other leadership styles in your toolbox.
If you are in a hurry and just need the basics, then check out this short summary video. There is a lot more information in the article though, so keep on reading as well.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership is essentially based on the following:
- Central authority is strong and decisions are taken without asking others
- 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, but 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 follower 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 or terror, he or she will need some sort legitimacy in order to be obeyed continously. 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.
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 need 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.
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 its 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 on 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 subordinate than a drill Sergeant in the army is, right? This is because of the embedded autocratic leadership within the organization.
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.
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 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 version of the autocratic leader is not rarely also a charismatic person who combines the autocratic leadership style with the charismatic leadership style to some extent.
What are the three types of autocratic leadership?
Some sources mention that autocratic leadership style can be applied in three ways: directing, permissive or paternalistic.
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. No questions or input expected. (Read this if you want to see something diametrically opposite of this behavior: Why should leaders always speak last?)
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 easily be disregarded without comment if the paternalistic autocrat decides so. The paternalistic autocrat ”knows what is best” for the people.
In sources not mentioning the above different version, 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 the other styles is the complete lack of input from others. The leader makes the decisions without the advice of others. Period. It doesn’t hurt for the autocratic leader to get at least one advisor since it can get very lonely on the top.
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. and 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, where as 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 challenge 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 and creating a compendium of work 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.
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 heavy weight on the disadvantage side is one of the reasons.
Advantages of Autocratic Leadership
Autocratic leadership has some strong advantages, many of them similar to the directive leadership style. However, the balance between strengths and weaknesses depend on the circumstances, and the situations where autocratic leadership can bloom are rather specific.
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 is less unexpected events and people generally know what to expect from the organization and its leadership.
2. Decisions are made quickly
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. This is one of the key disadvantages of the opposite of auotcratic leadership, namely democratic leadership.
3. Autocratic leaders tend to be better equipped to handle crisis situations.
Autocratic 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 of 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 can help inexperience people to performance
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.
Disadvantages of Autocratic Leadership
Some of the disadvantages of the autocratic leadership totally overshadows the advantages. One more reason why the style should be avoided unless the organizational requirements makes it mandatory for some reason.
1. A total need of control
A strong need of control and micro management 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 to complete their tasks, since they might have to wait for the next round of directives from their leader – thus making the leader a bottle neck.
2. Lack of empowerment
The lack of empowerment among the team members can mean that even low level decisions need to await the input from the leader, jeopardizing productivity in the process. Furthermore, low empowerment lead to low employee engagement and low accountability. If you are always doing what you are told, you will never feel accountable for the outcome as long as you did what you were told, right? Low accountability for decisions means no ownership.
3. Everything depends on the skill of the autocratic leader
The culture and performance of the organization depends on the values of the all too dominant leader. Poor values lead to a poor work culture. Poor decisions will lead to poor outcome. If a person who is low skilled and low experienced are put in charge or manages to put him or herself in charge somehow, 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 dependent on the leader
Unless the organization itself is an autocratic one built up with an autocratic system, switching between leaders may be very difficult. All the clarity, rules and decision making is ingrained in one person and the will of that person. Switch him or her out to another person and the basic platform everything rests upon is at stake.
You don’t need to go that far actually. 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.
5. Complete lack of trust
The leader doesn’t trust in team members which is detrimental for engagement, team identity, accountability and so many other things. Lack of trust can get worse and even grow into people suspecting each other for wrong doings, and beyond that lies 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. If they get a chance, they will undermine you or leave the organization. Who wouldn’t?
Perhaps disadvantage number five is one of the worst ones. 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 in achieving that. No trust means very little development according to my experience.
Does Autocratic Leadership Have a Place?
Autocratic leadership does sometimes have a place in the leadership journey. Leonard Schaeffer, 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.” 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 of 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 fantastic result.
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 autocratic leadership style. In fact, this approach is present in other leadership styles as well, perhaps to the extreme in the bureaucratic leadership style. 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.
- Quick decision-making. In times of crisis or when additional brain storming and seeking advice is not possible, quick decisions is 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 in rare occasions?
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.
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 in an inconsistent leader. So, the autocratic leader should ensure that he or she consistently enforces the rules. With strict hierarchies, downward communication is common.
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.
4. Praise and Reward Employees
Praise can create employees who are more productive and are better problem solvers. 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.
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.
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:
- 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. 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. Those occasions 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 taking 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 show afterwards 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 forces 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 previous 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 or 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 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 as a totally different leader for other direct reports who were in fact more empowered and made more decisions on their own than they had in a long time.
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 afterwards 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. 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 in that moment. No one would have challenged me due to my demeanor and tone in 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 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 them self more and my pushing made them understand they had to reach a higher level of performance.
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 then 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.
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.
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.” 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 Prices. 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 downfall since he kept publishing the work of a journalist who used improper methods despite warnings from others in the newsroom.
Leona Helmsley (1920-2007)- Hotelier and Real Estate Investor
Everything had to be done Hensley’s way. This led to a 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.
Josip Tito, the old leader of the former state of Yugoslavia is an example of this, where 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.
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 have more charisma 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.
 A Handbook of Leadership Styles, Cambridge Scholars Publishing