An autocratic leader explaining her points on a whiteboard.

What is Autocratic Leadership?

Andrew Lipovsky
October 14, 2021

John Maxwell, a foremost authority on leadership, defines a leader as one who knows the way, goes the way and shows the way. Ultimately, when one attains a leadership opportunity, the onus is on them to adopt a leadership style. This can be an uphill battle that can be remedied through executive coaching.

Throughout history, great leaders have applied different leadership styles to realize their objectives. It can range from the transformational approach of Mahatma Gandhi 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 Autocratic leadership. 

Defining Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style that, in a nutshell, means my way or the highway. It’s all about control from the top to bottom. In a workplace, such a leader:

  • Makes decisions often without the input of their team
  • Unilaterally delegates tasks
  • Enforces strict discipline
  • Sets hard deadlines
  • Doesn’t tolerate dissent
  • Doesn’t mentor their team

Defining An Autocratic Leader

Are leaders born or made?

In leadership, does the end justify the means?

This is a debate that is not about to end anytime soon. That said, at one point in our life, either at the family level or corporate level, we find ourselves in positions of leadership, often with little or no mentoring. 

In the absence of proper mentoring or executive coaching, many people tend to apply what they think will work best, often to disastrous results.

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, defines her leadership style as Autocratic. 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."

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

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When is Autocratic Leadership Appropriate?

A picture listing the industries suited for autocratic leadership

Whereas, in the modern world, Autocratic leadership is 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.

Theory X postulates that employees:

  • Hate their work
  • Avoid taking responsibility and thus need guidance
  • Need coercion to deliver
  • Lack 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 is likely to achieve results with theory X employees and deliver bad results with Y employees, especially in an evolving work environment.

When applied thoughtfully, Autocratic leadership comes with the following advantages:

  • It accelerates decision making especially in situations where the leader has far superior knowledge or leads unskilled staff
  • The chain of command is clear as tasks are clearly delegated
  • Works well in a situation where a clear direction is needed, like in emergencies, or in a fast-paced working environment like a restaurant.

When applied without much thought, it can result in the following disadvantages:

  • Lower motivation, especially if what is being suggested, does not inspire confidence.
  • Chance of abuse, especially from insecure management
  • High turn-over rate when employees feel unappreciated
  • Can create a toxic work culture

For professionals looking to create impact, it is advisable to seek the right leadership coaching to deliver the correct leadership style. As aforementioned, the workplace is constantly evolving, and initiatives such as executive coaching better position a leader on the best leadership style to apply in different scenarios. 

An autocratic leader having a meeting with her employees
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How Highrise Can Help?

Leadership positions come with their fair share of challenges. Many leaders are often judged by the results and rarely by the process. Getting a new role might come with anxiety and with irrationality, especially if experience lacks. A McKinsey study found out that 74% of US leaders and 83% of global leaders are not prepared for their new roles. This is precisely why leadership coaching, like the one we offer, is paramount. Our executive coaching delivered by experienced professionals is tailor-made to ensure that you execute leadership roles successfully.