Does autocratic leadership have a place in today’s organisations? Autocratic leadership is associated with control and decision making being solely with the leader. There is little involvement of others and the leader makes choices based on their own ideas, beliefs and judgements. The leadership focus is on getting things done, there is often clarity and purpose since one person is leading the direction in which the organisation or team goes. The greek roots of the word autocratic suggest the idea of independent power and self-sustaining power. It suggests that to lead autocratically implies a sustaining self-confidence. A confidence in your own decisions, your skills and the direction that you are going in.
Autocratic leadership can be played out in a number of ways:
- Directing autocrats impose decisions and closely monitor sub-ordinates
- Permissive autocrats make decisions but allow sub-ordinates flexibility in how they carry out the tasks
- Paternalistic autocrats try to balance their sense of having the right to decide with concern and care for their employees
Autocratic leadership – the benefits
An autocratic style can have a number of benefits:
- Clear decision making
- Team and others know the direction they are going in and what is required
- Often seen as strong leadership and as a result can be admired by subordinates
- Strong identity with the leader
What situations might support autocratic leadership?
- Where people want clarity and to know what is expected of them autocratic leadership works well
- Where a business or unit is performing poorly and a turn-round in performance is needed
- When there is a threat to the business and quick decisive responses are required
- Some tasks and sectors lend themselves to more autocratic styles for some of their practices, e.g. military, fire services and emergency services, or manufacturing where some applications are prescriptive
- Making significant changes quickly can sometimes require autocratic styles
- Could be helpful for inexperienced staff or unmotivated staff
Clearly this style of leadership is much more likely to be successful if there is respect and trust in the leaders who are autocratic.
What are the limitations of autocratic leadership?
A very directive style of leadership can have a number of detrimental effects:
- People can feel resentment about the decisions that are imposed upon them
- Good ideas and views can be suppressed
- Others with good leadership skills can be sidelined
- Tends to attract similar kinds of people who like clear leadership and want clear rules to follow, reducing diversity in the team/organisation
- People can feel they are being “micro-managed” with someone always looking over their shoulder
- Promotes a dependency culture
- Increased pressure and burden on one the individual leaders
- Doesn’t tend to work well with knowledge workers where individuals know more than the leader
In practice there is still quite a lot of autocratic leadership about, for some this can be an easier way to lead. If you are autocratic you don’t invite discussion and questioning of your decisions.
Think about your own experience of autocratic leadership:
- Where you have seen others adopting autocratic styles, what did you notice about the strengths and weaknesses of their style?
- What is your own view of autocratic leadership? Have you used the approach? How effective did you find it?
- What circumstances in your workplace might lend themselves to a more autocratic style?
- How could you adopt an autocratic style and maximise the benefits whilst minimising the limitations?
You can find out more about leadership styles in our article: different leadership styles.
For some background into how leadership styles developed see this article about Kurt Lewin, one of the first to explore different leadership styles.