The Cambridge Dictionary defines autocratic as “demanding that people obey completely, without asking or caring about anyone else’s opinions.”
If you’re thinking of dictators like Napoleon, Hitler, and Putin when you hear this term, you’re not alone. The term “autocratic” has long been used to describe iron-fisted rulers, but in business, it’s used to describe leaders who maintain complete control over all decisions.
Autocratic leadership doesn’t sound very positive when describing a leadership style, and many people view it as authoritative in nature. Just some of the negative adjectives used to describe autocratic leadership include: unyielding, stifling, controlling, oppressive, domineering, and intimidating.
In most settings, it’s proven to be a type of leadership that doesn’t lend itself to team success. But there are exceptions.
Let’s explore what autocratic leadership is, its benefits and drawbacks, and how and when to use it to your advantage.
Who Is the Autocratic Leader and What Autocratic Leadership Look Like?
Boss or leader? The autocratic leader is certainly the boss. It’s “my way or the highway” when it comes to the autocratic leader. These leaders make all the decisions, have all the control. Like all leaders, their goal is to improve organizational processes and/or achieve specific goals. But unlike other leaders, autocratic leaders are uninterested in developing a team where everyone has a voice, and everyone gets a say.
Autocratic leaders hold ultimate authority over the individuals and teams they lead. The choices and decisions they make are theirs and theirs alone, and they rarely seek the input of others. In most circumstances, autocratic leaders lead others with clear and concise rules and regulations and leave little to no room for negotiation and input. Demands and orders are crystal clear, and there’s simply no tolerance for those who don’t fall in line.
It’s also important to note, however, that an autocratic style of leadership doesn’t always need to be stifling or dysfunctional. Autocratic leaders can be compassionate, kind, supportive, and optimistic and can bring an air of positivity to the workplace environment. It’s the “I lead, you follow” attitude of leadership that differentiates them from other types of leaders.
To create a positive work environment in an autocratic leadership style, leaders must demonstrate a high degree of emotional intelligence, which includes the use of soft skills like communication, creativity, and conflict management.
The autocratic style of leadership can be best described as top-down control. In this style of leadership, leaders make decisions with little to no input from the individuals and teams they lead and instead expect them to adhere to their strict rules and directives.
The work environment in an autocratic style of leadership is quite rigid and structured, and all decisions made by the leader. Leaders in this style of leadership provide very clear expectations to the individuals and teams they lead and are meticulous in detail regarding how tasks should be completed. Of course, this type of leadership results in a very clear division between the leader and the members of the team.
Studying the Effectiveness of Autocratic Leadership
The term autocratic was first coined by social psychologist Kurt Lewin (largely considered the father of modern social psychology) in the 1930s. According to Lewin, autocratic leaders “make decisions without consulting their team members, even if their input would be useful.”
In 1939, Lewin, along with his colleagues L. Lippitt and R. White, conducted a series of leadership studies using boys’ activity groups as their focus. They implemented three different types of leadership styles they labeled as democratic, autocratic, and laissez-faire.
In the groups where the autocratic style of leadership was used, there were increased reports of dissatisfaction, and many of the participants became aggressive or uninterested. In contrast, in the groups where a more democratic style of leadership was used, an environment of cooperation and enjoyment was created. In the laissez-faire groups, dissatisfaction or discontentment were not reported but either was much productivity. The studies conducted by Lewin and his colleagues also revealed that moving from an autocratic style of leadership to a democratic one was difficult to do.
But the results of their studies didn’t show a complete failure for the autocratic style of leadership. Lewin found that an autocratic style of leadership was best used in situations where quick and focused decisions must be made, and in situations where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the team. Otherwise, they found that autocratic leadership breeds dysfunctional work environments and hostility between the leader and members of the team.
Despite Lewin’s studies, the autocratic style of leadership really developed into what we now know as the classic management style of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Taking a Closer Look at Autocratic Leadership: When It Works and When It Definitely Doesn’t
Some of the biggest names in business – Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos – are said to be autocratic leaders. They’ve been called obstinate, cocky, and unbending. But few can deny their successes. Most recently, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been one for the books. He immediately fired more than 7,000 employees and then sent out a foreboding email to the remaining employees, telling them to expect to either go “extremely hardcore” or hit the bricks.
For all the negative views on autocratic leadership, these business behemoths have found a way to use it to their advantage.
Like any other type of leadership style, there are times when it works and certainly times when it has catastrophic results on employee satisfaction, morale and, ultimately, the bottom line.
For leaders looking to streamline processes, improve efficiencies, turn things around, and shake things up, an autocratic model of leadership may be highly effective.
Think: things need to be done, they need to be done in a certain way, and they need to be done now.
If quick and sound decisions must be made, strict rules must be followed, and precise actions must be taken, an autocratic leadership style is paramount. Here there’s simply no time for views, opinions, feelings, or difficulties from the team.
For example, in businesses related to health and safety, autocratic leadership isn’t an option, it’s vital. Hospitals, fire departments, the military, and factories are all environments where deviating from a set of strict rules and guidelines could result in injury or death.
Also, in work environments where employees don’t have the training, education, or skills necessary to make decisions, an autocratic leadership environment ensures consistent quality and efficiency across the board. Consider, for example, the fast-food industry. In this environment, leaders must ensure that the staff is quickly trained to perform very specific tasks so that the quality of the food and the service are consistent. And in a factory assembly line environment, employees must perform their job in a precise manner to ensure consistency in product quality.
But it’s no surprise that many of today’s business leaders utilize an autocratic style of leadership outside of these conditions – sometimes to their detriment.
Author and psychologist Daniel Golman’s 1995 book, Primal Leadership: Realizing the Power of Emotional Intelligence, identified this type of leadership as Commanding (also called coercive), defining it as a “do it because I say so” approach to leadership.
According to Golman, despite the many negative effects of this type of leadership, “coercive leaders thrive around the world over in surprisingly large numbers, a legacy of the old command-and-control hierarchies that typified twentieth century businesses.”
A poorly executed autocratic leadership style – or an autocratic leader who doesn’t know when to change tactics – is destined to create a work environment where dissatisfaction is commonplace and employees either make a mass exodus or fail to perform under these circumstances.
But despite all its drawbacks, the autocratic style of leadership has and continues to have a place in situations where ineffective business methods must be abandoned or an emergency situations calls for swift, immediate action. And in some cases, this style of leadership has proven to be very useful when dealing with ineffective or problem employees.
Through an autocratic leadership style, business leaders often use forceful business tactics to eliminate an old way of doing business and usher in a new work culture.
According to Golman, to be successful in this type of leadership environment, leaders must use self-awareness, emotional self-control, and empathy to keep the work culture from becoming negative and destructive. Avoiding impatience, anger, disgust, or contempt is key for making the autocratic style of leadership an effective one. It’s also vital that leaders know when to use the autocratic leadership style and certainly know when to abandon it.
According to Golman, “If a leaders know when conditions demand a strong hand at the top – and when to drop it – then that skillful firmness can be tonic. But if the only tool in a leader’s toolkit is a chainsaw, he’ll leave the organization in shambles.”
Pros and Cons of the Autocratic Style of Leadership
Considering implementing an autocratic style of leadership? Take the time to know both its benefits and its drawbacks.
How to Use Autocratic Leadership to Your Advantage
Autocratic leadership can still work when used judiciously and thoughtfully. Leaders in this leadership style should always remember to: