Most of us hear the term “autocratic” and immediately picture a person shouting at an employee for not following orders.
This mental image isn’t unjustified either. Autocratic leader Steve Jobs was famous for shooting down ideas, changing projects at the last moment, and firing people who didn't meet his standards of work performance.
Jobs was also one of the most successful tech CEOs in history. Autocratic leadership can work in certain situations, pushing teams beyond their limits and achieving extraordinary results. But at what cost?
This article will explore the concept of autocratic leadership, its advantages and disadvantages, and offer some insights into how, why, and if autocracy is ever the right choice.
What is autocratic leadership?
Autocratic leadership is the concentration of decision-making and power in only one person who takes little or no input from others. It's the difference between a leader saying, "What do you think we should do?" and "Do this!"
Some characteristics of an autocratic leader include:
- That they rarely accept advice from other team members.
- Making all decisions, especially important ones.
- Discouraging creativity and unconventional thinking.
- Creating rules and highly structured work environments.
- Dictating working methods and processes to other team members.
Autocratic leaders are everywhere, and while this leadership style has its pitfalls, this doesn't mean that autocratic leadership isn't practical for some parts of people management.
Some of the most successful companies have been built on the back of autocratic leaders. It comes down to knowing when to use it and always keeping the experience of your people in mind. I would argue it’s a style of management that should be applied to certain situations rather than be something a leader exemplifies at all times.
The advantages of an autocratic leadership style
Autocratic and authoritarian leaders can seem overbearing and unpleasant. However, there can be benefits to this style of management.
While other leadership styles, such as democratic leadership, can often cause delays in decision-making, autocratic leaders can react and act decisively to change. A democratic leader might have to wait a week to find out how their team wants to solve a problem, while an autocratic leader can make the decision today and start executing. Time sensitive decisions and projects can be done with a strong decisive hand as long as that hand doesn’t figuratively pummel those who answer to it in the process.
It gives organisations a clear chain of command
Autocratic leadership styles offer structure to organisations, establish clear rules, and can streamline communications. People who work under an autocratic leader will know exactly who to talk to and who they should ask for approval. Not only can this lead to improved organisational efficiency, it can enhance accountability.
It provides teams and people with a strong sense of direction
This is especially true in a crisis or stressful situation. An autocratic manager or leader can give orders, think quickly, and adapt approaches without having to consider anyone else's opinions. In turn, this can increase productivity and lower stress levels for team members.
It can counter inexperience or skill-gaps
One of the benefits of autocratic leadership is that it can help an inexperienced team achieve goals that they wouldn’t be able to do alone. By providing clear instructions, oversight, and guidance, autocrats can speed up turnaround times and improve quality standards. An autocratic leader’s past experience can ensure teams don’t make the mistakes that inexperienced ones would.
The disadvantages of autocratic leaders
Lowers team morale
Often, if people’s opinions are ignored they will begin to lose interest, a culture of disconnect will start, and complacency will set in. Autocratic leaders can often build up resentment, fears of failure, and apathy among their people if they are too authoritarian.
Organisations are limited to the decision of one person
If a team relies solely on the viewpoints of their leader, they might miss out on important information or opportunities. Groups should play to their members' unique strengths and use them in different scenarios. By dominating all the decision-making in a group, autocratic leaders can often hold their organisations back.
Creativity and personal growth can be stifled
Autocratic leaders don’t foster creativity or problem solving in organisations. They also hold people back from developing new skills and abilities. A team run by an autocratic leader will not have the same level of new ideas and innovation that other teams have.
The consequences of autocratic leadership - Korean Air Flight 801
As any employee will tell you, autocratic leadership often has the opposite effect to what is intended.
But sometimes the consequences of autocracy can be devastating, like in the case of Korean Air Flight 801. If reading about plane crashes is triggering for you, then please skip down to where it says “When should you use autocratic leadership?”
So, what happened? In 1998, a flight from Seoul Gimpo Airport missed the runway of Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport by three miles and crashed into the side of a mountain.
The plane's captain decided to perform a visual approach at night during bad weather, and the flight crew did not challenge his decision or take control of the aircraft.
In the aftermath, investigators found that neither the co-pilot nor the flight engineer felt comfortable speaking up when they couldn't see runway lights or when their captain chose to land without assistance from onboard systems.
In his New York Times bestselling book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell theorised that Korean Air's culture of autocratic thinking (and deference to it) was the cause of the disaster.
He suggested the autocratic culture in which pilots held absolute power meant the other flight crew members felt unable to speak up — even in the face of certain death!
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board said had the flight crew been blunt with their captain or taken control of the aircraft, the plane might have landed that day.
The lesson? There is a time and a place for autocratic leadership.
Whether you fly planes for a living or run a team, company, or division, autocratic behaviour can harm your organisation's success. You should carefully consider when to use it.
When should you use autocratic leadership?
While autocratic leadership can cause problems and have unintended consequences, it can also be a powerful tool for organisations to reach their goals efficiently and perform under pressure.
Japanese, Korean, and Chinese work cultures are famous for rigid structures and top-down approaches to most business decisions.
Yet businesses in these countries are also known for their high productivity levels, astounding growth rates, and competitive edges.
Autocratic leadership isn’t always a bad thing. But, like any style of leading, it is dependent on certain variables.
The success of and need for autocratic leadership depends on:
- The organisation’s goal
- The situation
- The urgency
- The level of difficulty/stress
- The skills and experience of your team
When might autocratic leadership work?
It’s hard to know when an autocratic leadership works and when you should try a different approach. Let’s look at some situations where an autocratic style of leadership can have benefits for your organisation.
When experience and skill is needed
An autocratic leadership style can work in scenarios where high levels of skill and knowledge are needed.
This type of leadership can cut down decision-making time, improve overall efficiency, and reduce stress among employees.
For example, if a large multinational company needs an audit conducted urgently an experienced senior accountant would be able to plan, direct, and oversee the task much faster than a team of junior accountants using a democratic management approach.
When time constraints are an issue
An autocratic leadership style is beneficial when time, execution, and quality of work are essential to success.
This is because individual decision-makers can plan, assess, and correct their teams faster and better than groups or committees.
For example, say a manufacturing business wins a contract to produce many new items for a multinational overseas. They may have to implement autocratic management processes to ensure that they deliver on time.
The Impact of Autocratic Leadership in Different Sectors
Research into autocratic leadership has produced mixed results about the effectiveness of this management style.
Let’s take a look at some examples of the positive and negative impact that autocratic leadership had on people and organisations in two very different industries — retail and banking.
A 2015 study in The Leadership Quarterly that looked at how autocratic leadership can affect morale and performance in the retail sector found a positive relationship between autocratic management and team member performance.
It found that autocratic leadership can:
- Create a sense of order and purpose for teams.
- Provide psychological security for team members.
A 2019 study exploring autocratic leadership in the banking sector used a sample of 282 people to assess its impact on counterproductive work behaviour.
It found that autocratic leadership style:
- Led to lower levels of commitment from team members.
- Increased emotional exhaustion.
- Reduced productivity in their teams.
What is interesting is that even in a highly competitive, fast-paced, and results-driven sector like banking, people value autonomy and dislike autocratic management styles.
These conclusions also confirm the negative impact that an autocratic leadership style can have on teams and strengthen the notion that controlling leaders can have serious effects on people and business performance.
Are there alternatives to autocratic leadership styles?
There aren't any hard-and-fast rules to good leadership and management. Most great leaders can combine different styles and merge them to create a distinctive management approach.
You will rarely find a successful manager or leader who only uses one style to reach their goals. The best leaders can change their approach to different scenarios as and when they need to.
For example, a founder at a very early stage in their business who is still developing a proof of concept may be more laissez-faire in their approach to managing their team. They might do this because this style suits creativity and the free-flow of ideas.
They would, however, have to use an autocratic or authoritarian leadership style if they were given a deadline by investors to create something, or if there were significant problems that needed to be resolved.
The traditional leadership styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire
- Strong control and oversight.
- Downward flow of communication.
- One individual makes decisions.
- Criticism is punitive.
- Different statuses (boss vs employees).
- “Do this!”
- Partial control is maintained.
- Downward and upward flow of communication.
- Many people make decisions.
- Criticism is constructive.
- An emphasis on ‘us’ rather than ‘me’.
- “What should we do?”
- Little or no control from management.
- Downward and upward flow of communication.
- Each team member makes decisions on their own.
- Little or no criticism.
- An emphasis on the group rather than ‘we’ or ‘me’.
- “Do what you want to.”
Ultimately, there is no "right way" to lead a team. Part of the difficulty of being a great leader is adapting your leadership skills to ever-changing situations, goals, and resources.
Sometimes autocratic leaders can drive your employees to new heights and inspire an organisation to achieve ambitious goals. Sometimes it can lead to stifling of good ideas, complacency, and even a mass exodus.
But this is not to say that you should never be an autocratic leader. There is a time and place for this leadership style — being a good manager means knowing when to use it and when to take a different approach.
Essential points about autocratic leadership and autocratic leaders
- What is autocratic leadership? A simple autocratic leadership definition is “the concentration of decision-making power in one individual.”
- Autocratic leadership can be both beneficial or detrimental to teams depending on the situation.
- Studies have found that an autocratic style of leadership can lead to lower motivation, higher stress, and disinterested employees.
- But autocratic leadership can lead to an increase in productivity and performance in the short term.
-Some of the most successful companies in the world have used autocratic leadership to achieve their goals.
- There are multiple leadership strategies that a person can use to manage their business.
- A good leader will know when to use autocratic leadership strategies and when to switch to other management styles.