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Transformational Leadership vs. Autocratic Leadership

Updated July 3, 2022 by Carl Lindberg

Transformational leadership and autocratic leadership are incredibly different, and I have met leaders from both camps during my leadership career as a CEO. This article outlines the key differences and the key similarities between transformational leadership and autocratic leadership, besides providing a short introduction to both styles.

What are the differences between transformational leadership and autocratic leadership?

Transformational and autocratic leadership differs in decision-making, development, and vision. Transformational leadership provides vision, development, and participation for people. Autocratic leadership builds on the leader taking all decisions and giving orders with no development or vision.

What are the similarities between transformational leadership and autocratic leadership?

Transformational and autocratic leadership are so different that no substantial similarities exist, and they are complete opposites in many critical aspects.

Keep on reading for brief introductions of both the transformational and autocratic leadership styles. A more thorough comparison between the two styles comes after that. I also want to suggest you have a look at my book Leadership Styles Classics: Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire (Amazon), which explains the Lewin experiments and these three leadership styles at a whole new depth.

Introducing Transformational Leadership

The following is an extract from our main article on transformational leadership.

Transformational leadership creates substantial change for team members as well as organizations. Expectations, aspirations, perceptions, and values are transformed into something better. Transformational leadership develops the team members and motivates and inspires them to reach extraordinary success.

This change improvement journey, or transformation, is facilitated by an ideal embodied by the transformational leader who is a strong moral example in working towards the team’s benefit and a positive change in organizational culture. The transformational leader actively promotes challenging the status quo and opportunities for growth and improvement in team members and in general.

Team members are very loyal to their transformational leader, who they trust, admire, and respect. This belief in the leader, coupled with the leader’s aim towards improvement for the team, results in very motivated team members willing to perform out of the ordinary.

Transformational leadership requires a lot of skill on the part of the leader and a substantial investment of time.

For additional information, refer to our in-depth article available here: Transformational Leadership.

Introducing Autocratic Leadership

This segment is an excerpt from our in-depth article on autocratic leadership.

Autocratic leadership, or authoritarian 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.

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.

Autocratic leadership centers around 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 the followers trust

Some of the advantages of autocratic leadership include high clarity and fast decision-making. Typically, these point towards situations when it is essential to have rapid decision-making, which is achieved by having one single person with absolute power. Autocratic leadership also gives a strong target focus, and the powerful guidance allows inexperienced people to become productive quickly thanks to detailed instructions. The disadvantages ultimately outweigh the advantages completely, with weaknesses such as poor empowerment, intimidation, low employee engagement, and high turnover. Any leader should avoid using autocratic leadership due to the severe downsides of this style. If additional decisiveness is required, I suggest you rely on a temporary situational style instead, such as directive/commanding leadership. For more in-depth information, please refer to our article: Autocratic Leadership Style.

Transformational vs. Autocratic leadership: Ten Great Differences

The amount of polar opposites between transformational and autocratic leadership is very high:

  1. Transformational leadership builds on vision and inspiration; autocratic leadership builds on orders
  2. Transformational leadership is known for high employee engagement, autocratic leadership is known for low engagement
  3. Autocratic leadership builds on control and little empowerment; transformational leadership has empowerment and trust as cornerstones
  4. Autocratic leadership might work in the short-term, whereas transformational leadership can be problematic in the short term and only works well in the longer term
  5. Autocratic leaders are rarely respected (rather feared) by their followers, but transformational leaders are often popular and well respected
  6. Autocratic leadership builds on power; transformational leadership builds on respect and motivation
  7. Autocratic leadership enables swift decision-making, whereas transformational leadership is more time-consuming.
  8. Transformational leadership is most suitable for change; autocratic leadership has similar suitability for status quo and change (low suitability in both cases, by the way.)
  9. Leaders should try to develop their transformational leadership abilities and should work hard to avoid and stop using autocratic leadership
  10. Autocratic Leadership is one of the most rudimentary styles to use: order people around and depend on the power your title gives you. Transformational leadership requires a wide skill set, experience, and passion on behalf of the leader.

Two more differences between transformational and autocratic leadership, however less critical:

  1. Autocratic leadership is part of the Lewin leadership style framework, and transformational leadership is part of the Full Range Leadership Model
  2. Autocratic leadership is old as humanity itself, transformational leadership was developed in the 1970s

Transformational vs. Autocratic leadership: Similarities

There are virtually no similarities between transformational and autocratic leadership. If you can identify any real similarities, feel free to contact me, I would be listening eagerly. (Contact info here: About Us.)

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 the Lewin styles, and how to use them properly.

For additional information and sources, refer to our articles on transformational leadership and autocratic leadership. You might also be interested in autocratic leadership compared to laissez-faire leadership, or How does autocratic leadership motivate employees? If you have a wider interest, check out our vast portal on leadership styles. It contains more than 25 leadership styles, such as charismatic, bureaucratic, visionary, democratic, and country club leadership.

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