Autocratic Leadership Theory

by Walter Johnson - Updated September 26, 2017
Autocrats rule by themselves. All decisions come from them, and obedience is expected.

Autocracy is defined right in the word. It is rule by one person. It has the connotation of dictatorship, depending on quick and unflinching obedience. The autocratic leader consults with no one except by choice or under certain circumstances, and all decision-making power lies with the leader and no one else. Autocracy also refers to complete responsibility for things going poorly, as well as having full power.


Autocracies are typically centralized around one person. This leader may rule by divine right, bureaucratic privilege or charisma. Many autocrats have the reputation of “getting things done.” Autocrats try to make as many decisions as possible and do not delegate. One orders, all the rest obey. There are no levels of authority; there is the simple structure of one leader and those who obey. There is no other relevant relation.


Autocracy is a very efficient system. Decisions are made quickly and there is clear chain of command. If something goes wrong, it's the autocrat's fault. Everyone else does what they are told. Autocracy assumes that most workers are not motivated, and only a strong leader can get them to move. Autocrats shine in highly complex tasks, especially those with tight deadlines.

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Normally, autocrats make quick decisions on a short-term basis. There is no incentive to hone this kind of leadership skill, since the autocrat, by definition, already has a plenitude of power. Autocrats make decisions without consultation; therefore, important details from the floor may be missed. Workers in this environment become dependent on the leader, becoming incapable of ruling themselves. No cooperation comes from autocracy. Most people do not like being pushed around and there is often much resentment against the autocrat.


Much of autocracy thinking comes from the “great man” theory of leadership. This approach stresses the power and greatness of a leader that motivates subordinates. Such a person is looked up to, and admired for his power. In this approach, only those who have proven themselves superior in important ways can deserve to take full autocratic power. It is rational to hold that autocrats who have a track record of excellence will be obeyed more readily than an unknown.


In areas of low skill employment, or firms with a high rate of turnover, autocracy is almost the default mode of decision-making. Low-skill, repetitive styles of work produce no real motivation. Autocracy in these kind of workshops is necessary. Participatory or democratic leadership styles seem out of place when employees come and go, since there are no long-term employees that can share power through their knowledge of the system. Many long-term and well-established employees who a firm could not do without can successfully challenge an autocratic system.

About the Author

Walter Johnson has more than 20 years experience as a professional writer. After serving in the United Stated Marine Corps for several years, he received his doctorate in history from the University of Nebraska. Focused on economic topics, Johnson reads Russian and has published in journals such as “The Salisbury Review,” "The Constantian" and “The Social Justice Review."

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