We are all familiar with the concept of a strong leader, someone who is at the front of the pack and takes charge. But what does this look like as an intentional leadership style?
Autocratic or Authoritarian Leadership is one of the leadership styles that is perhaps the most easily recognized by the general public. It functions exactly as you would expect.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic Leadership is characterized by one person having all of the authority. This leader will make all of the decisions about what work will be done and how. Overall success of the group will depend on how willing and able they are to follow this leader’s orders.
All of the responsibility and burden of making strategically advantageous decisions is placed upon the leader. They must be capable of making the best choices for the company. Under this style of leadership there is a clear cut hierarchy in place that cannot be challenged.
People who use this style of leadership often have strong personalities and are highly charismatic. It takes a certain level of skill to rally an entire workforce behind your guidance.
The etymology of the word “Autocratic” comes from the Greek roots of “auto” meaning self and “cratic” which suggests leadership. Taking this literal meaning into consideration we can get a clear picture of what these leaders are like.
The history of Autocratic leadership is a tale as old as time. We can find examples of people using this style of leadership all the way back into antiquity. Because of this, most people are familiar with the basic structure of it.
That being said, many historical examples that immediately come to mind are not always the most positive. Dictators and tyrants are probably the most infamous examples. However, in a business setting, there can absolutely be positives to using this method of leadership.
Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership
- An Autocratic leader will have complete control over all aspects of the workplace. Any decisions that need to be made will be dictated by them.
- This leader will provide a clear outline for how communication will work and for how things will be done. Rules, expectations, and methods are all set in stone by one person and must be followed by all parties involved.
- Under certain circumstances, these leaders can be seen as overly controlling or bossy, and these perceptions can negatively affect morale.
- The leader is capable of making good decisions
- While they don’t need to be an expert, this style of leadership will be most efficient if the leader has some knowledge of the work that their subordinates will be doing. Without this they will not be able to direct the workflow as well. If the choices made by an autocratic leader do not provide effective modes for work, it will not be successful.
- The workers are willing to follow the Leader
- If the employees are unwilling to follow the directions of the leader, this style of leadership will not work. It relies entirely on the workers doing what they are told to do and not deviating from their directions.
- Simplified chain of command
- When there is no conversation needed for decisions to be made, actions can be taken swiftly and efficiently. There is no question about where to go for answers, the leader is the only person needed to provide direction.
- Removes stress of failure from employees
- In situations where the wrong decisions could have significant consequences, the leader takes sole responsibility for those outcomes. This allows the staff to not have to shoulder the burden of negative results. As long as they do as they have been directed, the workers will not be directly held accountable for failure. Workers only need to be concerned with the work they have been tasked with and nothing else.
- Problems can be quickly fixed
- Through careful monitoring of results by the leader, areas of inefficiency can be easily identified. The leader is then able to rapidly rectify these issues as they see fit.
- Inability to be flexible
- Because only one person is making all of the decisions, problems could arise if there is a need for flexibility. These leaders are used to always doing things their way, and if this is shown to be ineffective for some reason, they may not possess the flexibility to change course.
- Difficulties with morale
- Staff that are following a leader like this may become disheartened. It can be difficult for people to recognize their importance in the company when they are never trusted to make their own decisions. When it is the only style of leadership being used, Autocratic leadership can fail in building a sense of dedication and motivation among workers. Over time employees can grow to resent the leader for their unwillingness to accept input. This can lead to a high turnover rate.
- Does not encourage collaboration or initiative
- This will not be an effective method of leadership for all employees. Some people will thrive best in a work environment where they are able to put their best skills to use and take the initiative to improve. Taking the opinions of workers into account when making business decisions can have a positive effect on morale. A group of people working together to develop a solution to a problem might reach a conclusion that one person alone might not have considered.
When is Autocratic Leadership most effective?
- In large group settings
- Having a strong leader that calls all the shots can help a large group be more organized. Without group discussions, action can be taken quickly and more efficiently. Taking the opinions of all team members involved in a job into consideration could result in a halted workflow.
- With a knowledgeable leader
- When the leader is the most experienced member of the team, they can use their knowledge to organize the work in the best way. This allows the rest of the team to not be as highly trained as the person in charge might be. This will also lead to workers having a higher level of respect for the leader, as they are seen as an authority on the topic.
- With an inexperienced staff
- If the group that is performing the labor is inexperienced, an autocratic leader providing direction can be extremely helpful. It is not as important to have workers who know how to do a job by themselves if they have a leader telling them what they need to be doing. For work that needs to be completed quickly, this can cut down on time required to train staff for immediate results.
When should it be avoided?
- If the leader cannot be present
- This style of leadership requires the constant presence of the leader. When all of the work decisions are made by one person, they must be there for anything to happen. If for some reason the leader cannot be reached, work will grind to a halt.
- If the work requires collaboration
- Autocratic leadership does not promote collaboration. Groups might work together if the leader has asked them to, but coming up with creative solutions together is not allowed. The input of employees is not taken into account by this leader. If the company is trying to improve overall morale, using this style of leadership in the long term can be highly detrimental.
How to implement
- Respect subordinates
It is essential for someone using this style of leadership to remember that their workers are people and deserve respect. Maintaining a culture of respect between the leader and employees can help to prevent the impression of them being a dictator. Having fair and consistent expectations for all staff will prevent perceptions of favoritism.
- Provide a space for feedback
While this leader will not often take input from their staff, having a time and place where they are able to provide feedback can offset some of the potentially adverse effects of this leadership style. There may be situations where the people actually doing the work will be able to see solutions to problems that the leader cannot. Graciously accepting occasional input is a good practice for these leaders.
- Clear Communication
Explicitly detailing the expectations and methods of work to the staff is extremely important. Having things laid out clearly will also decrease the number of direct questions employees will need to ask the leader, and improve efficiency.
Examples of Autocratic Leadership
Most familiarly, the military is known to use Autocratic Leadership. While it is not always the case, many generals and other military heads will be the only members of the group deciding what actions must be taken.
In a battle scenario, there is no room for individual soldiers to be acting independently. All members of a military unit must trust and abide by the guidance of their superiors. These leaders may have information available to them that others do not.
Catering companies also often utilize this style of leadership. While there may be a core set of staff that are knowledgeable, many companies will bring in outside staff for large events. These workers may not know what to do independently, but the manager of the event will provide them with direction. If something doesn’t go to plan, one individual is usually the point person for how to move forward.
Famous Autocratic Leaders
- Napoleon Bonaparte
While he is not necessarily remembered in the most favorable light, it cannot be denied that he was an effective leader. Napoleon was able to expand the French empire dramatically through his leadership. For years, he led his military to victory in battle after battle.
Napoleon is a classic example of an autocratic leader. He was confident in his ability to make decisions and did not consider the opinions of his subordinates in making strategic moves.
- General George Patton
As a famous general in World War II, Patton led his battalions into many risky situations successfully. While he was not known for following the directions of his superiors, Patton demanded complete dedication from his followers.
Known for his brash and vulgar speeches, Patton can be a polarizing figure. However, through most of his career, he was exceedingly successful.
He is well known for marching to the beat of his own drum, and making choices that he personally felt were the best at the time. This did not always yield the best results, and by the end of his career he had lost most of the respect that he once had.
The Autocratic leadership style has been utilized for centuries across countless different scenarios.
If it is misused, this leadership style can result in the formation of tyrants or dictators. However, a leader using this style can increase efficiency and pull a company out of a desperate situation when used appropriately.
Autocratic leaders are able to make decisions quickly and get results in an equally rapid manner. There will always be an appropriate time and place for this style of leadership. Knowing when to use it, and how to offset the potential negative repercussions can be highly beneficial to a manager or leader.