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What is Autocratic Leadership?

Andrew Langat
October 14, 2021
An autocratic leader explaining her points on a whiteboard.
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What is Autocratic Leadership: Key Takeaways

  • Autocratic leaders are fast becoming rare in the modern workplace.
  • By most definitions, Autocratic leadership styles often require little or no input from team members.
  • This authoritarian leadership style works best when decisions must be made quickly and effectively.

John Maxwell, a foremost authority on leadership, defines a leader as one who knows the way, goes the way, and shows the way.

When one attains a leadership opportunity, the onus is on them to adopt a leadership style.

Leadership is best served through learning; in the absence of such, it can be an uphill task. This can be remedied through executive coaching, especially when one lacks leadership and management experience.

Throughout history, great leaders have applied different leadership styles to realize their objectives. It can range from the transformational approach of Mahatma Gandhi's democratic leadership of Richard Branson, the laissez-faire leadership of Queen Victoria, the Charismatic leadership of Martin Luther to the abrasive style of Napoleon Bonaparte.

A leader can opt for a leadership style based on prevailing culture, personality traits, past experiences, etc. One of the leadership styles one can choose is the Autocratic leadership style.

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Autocratic Leadership Definition

Autocratic leadership style, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style that, in a nutshell, means my way or the highway. Only one person gets a chance to make decisions on important tasks, including complex decisions.

The autocratic leadership style is about control from the top to the bottom. Such a leader shows the following leadership behaviors:

  • Makes decisions often without the input of their team
  • Unilaterally delegates tasks
  • Enforces strict discipline
  • Sets hard deadlines
  • It doesn’t tolerate dissent
  • Doesn’t mentor their team
  • He or she is usually self-driven and expects the same from group members

Defining An Autocratic Leader

An Autocratic leader is one whose management style takes little or no input from other team members. Unlike other leadership styles, the leader exercises absolute decision-making power.

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Examples of Autocratic leadership style

Unlike other forms of leadership, Autocratic leaders rarely accept advice and prefer authoritarian control. Other team members merely act as subordinates to implement the leader's vision.

The primary characteristic of many autocratic leaders is a big ego and the need to control other members to be seen as a strong leaders.

Team members who disagree with this leadership style are often shown the door.

One of the most recent poignant examples of an Autocratic leader is Elizabeth Holmes, the disgraced former CEO of Theranos.

In his tell-tale book Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, John Carreyrou, the Wall Street journalist, explores her autocratic leadership style. Here is a passage from the book:

Elizabeth Holmes had no work–life balance as she worked 16 hours a day, seven days a week, and purportedly slept only four hours a night. She expected a similar commitment from employees, whose hours she monitored, questioning the loyalty of those who balked at her demands. Her autocratic style included divesting her board of power, as was evident when she "took offense" at an employee's simple question about the role of her board, leading her to proclaim, "I make all the decisions here."

Donald Trump also preferred the autocratic style. His leadership was characterized by autonomous decision-making that played little in established structures. Thus, those making critical decisions were often dumbfounded by his desire to exercise absolute power.

Elon Musk, a genius of our time, has also been known to prefer authoritative leadership. He seems to prefer team members' productivity more than their welfare. He famously sacked his personal assistant, Mary Beth Brown, when she asked for a raise.

Other famous autocratic leaders include Idi Amin, Roger Ailes, and Helen Gurley Brown.

Whereas in the modern world, Authoritarian leaders are frowned upon, there are some instances where it serves a purpose. To understand why we need to revisit Douglas McGregor’s Theory X and Theory Y on human work and management.

This theory explores that there are broadly two types of employees in workplace environments.

Theory X defines negative traits, while theory Y defines positive traits in co-workers.

Theory X postulates that employees:

  • Hate their work
  • Avoid taking responsibility and thus need guidance
  • Need coercion to deliver
  • Lack of ambition to work
  • Resist change and new ideas

Theory Y postulates that employees:

  • Are resourceful
  • Like to be involved in work decision making
  • Show self-motivation
  • Apply imagination and love solving problems

Autocratic leadership works with theory X employees and delivers bad results with Y employees, especially in an evolving work environment.

An autocratic leader working on her laptop and talking to her employees.

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Which Jobs Do Autocratic leadership work?

Autocratic leadership is effective in situations such as:

  • In the Corrections department, law and order must be maintained to prevent chaos.
  • In restaurants, where customer orders have be delivered on time and as requested
  • In the military, where the chain of command is laid
  • When dealing with blue-collar employees like in the construction industry.
  • In the Aerospace industry when an Autocratic manager is needed to minimize errors
  • In the Manufacturing industry, to meet specific deadlines and enhance quality control
An infographic listing the industries suited for autocratic leadership

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Autocratic leadership Advantages

Like other leadership styles, the Autocratic management style has advantages and disadvantages.

  • It accelerates decision-making, especially when the leader has far superior knowledge or leads unskilled staff.
  • The chain of command is clear, as tasks are delegated
  • Works well in a fast-paced working environment like a restaurant.
  • It is easy to establish clear rules for group members.
  • The autocratic style of leadership can be very effective in emergency situations.
  • Autocratic leadership tends to be the best option when dealing with work environments that require a firm leader.
  • Autocratic leadership is likely to be effective when time is of the essence and clear instructions are needed.

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Autocratic Leadership Disadvantages

  • Lower motivation, especially if what is being suggested does not inspire confidence.
  • Chance of abuse, especially from insecure management
  • High turnover rate when employees feel unappreciated
  • It can create a toxic work culture and lower team morale
  • An Autocratic leader often does not give team members personal growth
  • A leader with poor decision-making capability is often unchallenged
  • Loss of talented team members
  • In many instances, this form of leadership discourages group input

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Characteristics of Autocratic leadership

The following are the major characteristics that define autocratic leadership:

  • Group members hardly contribute ideas even on significant decisions
  • Leadership skills primarily rely on a leader's own beliefs
  • The is little room for dissenting opinion
  • Quick decision-making process
  • There is a clear chain of command

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Skills Required For Autocratic leadership

The autocratic leadership style works when a leader has the following skills:

  • Great communication skills
  • Adaptability
  • Great at decision making
  • Understands Stress Management
  • High emotional Intelligence
  • Practice active listening

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How to Apply Autocratic leadership Correctly

In Authoritarian leadership, the leader is most likely to encounter resistance. To ensure that this form of leadership works, do the following:

  • Show competency in your work. When a leader is competent, it becomes easy to follow commands as it eliminates second guessing
  • Know that you can not always be correct. This is especially true when you are dealing with knowledgeable team members.
  • Read and understand Autocratic leadership theory
  • Create an environment that ensures Psychological safety.

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Andrew Langat
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Andrew Langat is an experienced content specialist in Leadership, Productivity, Education, Fintech, and Research. He is an avid reader and loves swimming as a hobby. He believes that quality content should be actionable and helpful.