The autocratic leadership style, usually seen in big bureaucratic institutions, is also found in some small and medium sized companies with other organizational structures. This leadership style’s main advantage is that managers and direct reports seldom disagree because the leader has control and maintains absolute decision-making power.
Many people typically associate autocratic leaders in a negative way in politics and business from historical personalities like Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I, and Genghis Khan, to name just a few.
However, autocratic leadership does not require others to fear the leader. In fact, there is a place for autocratic leadership that does not require vilification.
I look to provide this understanding by explaining the autocratic leadership style using the available literature on the subject and examples and case studies that showcase it.
What is the Autocratic Leadership Style?
Autocratic leadership is a leadership style characterized by one person having control over decision-making; the leader makes decisions on behalf of subordinates with minimal or no feedback. Typically, autocratic leaders make decisions based on their opinions and judgments and seldom consider input from associates or followers. Autocratic leadership entails absolute, authoritarian power over a group.
While feedback is not always required, this style may also utilize a select group of trusted advisors for assistance. Autocratic leadership works best in situations requiring error-free performance or urgent decisions and problems with time limitations or potential safety threats. To better understand autocratic leadership, you need to know the characteristics or core character traits exhibited by people with this leadership style.
The Characteristics of an Autocratic Leader
There are some primary characteristics or core character traits that make it easy to identify an autocratic leader. The Following are the four characteristics displayed by a leader with an autocratic style.
Being self-confident implies trusting in your knowledge and capabilities. An autocratic leader is someone who trusts their capacity to make the right choice from a range of options and the effect of their selection. They always trust their experience and judgment amid pressure from the outside in a time-restricted or high-stress scenario.
Autocratic leaders are self-driven and can inspire those they lead. Abilities such as communication and empathy aid these leaders in understanding the needs of their followers/subordinates/team members and formulating practical goals for them to accomplish.
Let’s understand this autocratic leadership trait through an example. Chris, a production plant supervisor, heads up a team of new employees on the production lines. His team has to remove any visually damaged items from the assembly before moving to the next step.
Chris introduced a new system that recognized the person at the end of each shift, eliminated the most number of faulty items, increased efficiency, and minimized defective products that made it to the next level.
Autocratic leaders are generally straightforward and consistent when providing guidance and delegating assignments to team members. The ability to define goals and procedures for performing these tasks means that tasks can be carried out at a high level by those involved in the work.
The fourth and final core characteristic of an autocratic leader is dependability. Autocratic leaders obey the rules of their organization because they recognize these standards promote productivity and efficiency. This characteristic makes them reliable, particularly in groups that gain from the hierarchy.
While there are some clear advantages of having the above traits as a team leader, an organization, or an entire nation, having an autocratic leadership style can sometimes backfire. Therefore, you must weigh the pros of this leadership style against its cons to make an informed decision on whether to adopt it or not.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an Autocratic Leader
The autocratic style, like any other leadership style, has both some advantages and some disadvantages. While those who depend heavily on this style seem controlling or tyrant-like, in some cases, this degree of control may have benefits and add value. The following are the advantages and disadvantages of the autocratic leadership style.
The Benefits of Being an Autocratic Leader
Some initiatives need decisive leadership. When the leader is the most experienced individual in-sight, the autocratic style will contribute to swift and productive decisions. One study proposes that the autocratic leadership style can be instrumental in urgent situations that require quick and efficient decisions. The following are some key benefits of being an autocratic leader:
Provide Direction—In small groups where accountability is missing, autocratic leadership can prove valuable. A strong leader who uses an autocratic style may control the group in such circumstances, delegate tasks to various members, and set clear deadlines for completion of projects.
Relieve Pressure—People are likely to seek and favor autocratic leadership in extremely challenging circumstances, such as during military engagements. Autocratic leadership enables them to concentrate on fulfilling individual tasks without stressing about making critical decisions.
Offer Structure—There are situations where every person has an assigned mission, a deadline, and guidelines to follow. In such cases, an autocratic leadership style works best.
The Downsides of Autocratic Leadership
Although autocratic leadership can often be advantageous, there are also several situations where this type of leadership can be troublesome. The following are two examples of this:
Discouraging Feedback Where It is needed—Studies have shown that autocratic leadership frequently leads to a lack of innovative solutions to issues, negatively impacting performance, and productivity.
Affects Morale—People are generally happier and more productive when made to feel like their contributions towards a goal matter. As autocratic leaders usually seek feedback from those under them, followers can quickly feel frustrated and hindered, which does not benefit anyone.
There are times or circumstances where centralized control becomes necessary. However, this leadership style may not always work, especially when your aim as a leader is to encourage collaboration and teamwork, establish lasting relationships with co-workers and subordinates, and promote employee initiative. With that, it is for you to decide whether the advantages of autocratic leadership outweigh its disadvantages enough for you to adopt it as your preferred way of leading.
One of the Top 100 Coaches, and Founder and CEO of Best Practice Institute, partner to Newsweek on America’s Most Loved Workplaces, and the author of more than 10 books on best practices in leadership and management, including Change Champion’s Field Guide, In Great Company, and Best Practices in Talent Management. Thought leaders and executives voted him as one of Global Gurus Top 10 Organizational Culture thinkers worldwide.