Autocratic Leadership Theory

by Jill Harness ; Updated October 15, 2018
Dissatisfied, angry director business woman criticizing work

Also known as the authoritarian leadership theory, the autocratic leadership theory involves taking charge of the group in the same way a dictator might take control of a country. An autocratic leader will not listen to the ideas of her subordinates and will make all high-level decisions on her own. While authoritarianism might not be ideal in most situations, it can be preferable in high-stakes situations that require quick decision making or in work environments where entry-level workers need extensive guidance.

What Is Autocracy?

As you may be able to guess, the autocratic leadership theory is based on autocracy or authoritarianism in governments. Essentially, an autocracy is a dictatorship, where one person has unlimited, uncontrolled authority over all others with no restrictions. Outside of a government setting, this simply means that one person in a group exercises extensive control over the others. As the name implies, those subscribing to authoritarian theories of leadership in management exert absolute, authoritarian control over their employees.

What Is the Authoritarian Leadership Style?

When applied to business, authoritarian leaders are bosses who control all decisions in their department or company with little or no input from subordinates. These managers make choices based solely on their own ideas and judgments. Their employees are not asked for their opinions, and if they offer their opinions, they are ignored. In some cases, the employee may even be punished for offering suggestions.

Aside from making all decisions in the department and rarely seeking input from employees, an autocratic leader will also often dictate how employees do their jobs, rarely entrust his underlings to do important tasks, insist on rigid office and departmental rules and discourage outside-the-box thinking.

While it is easy to see a leader's unlimited authority as a bad thing (which it usually is in a political setting), authoritarian leadership in business has many benefits. Most importantly, when decisions need to be made quickly and efficiently, authoritarianism can ensure these important calls can be made nearly instantaneously. This can be particularly useful if the work environment is notably stressful since the employees can focus on their specific tasks rather than making complex decisions because those decisions will be handled by the leader of the group instead.

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Additionally, it can also be beneficial in groups where no one person wants to take the reins, and everyone floats along without direction. In these cases, a strong leader can jump in and assign tasks and deadlines to direct the work to be completed more efficiently.

Of course, just because there are some benefits to autocratic leadership doesn't mean it is beneficial in all situations. Authoritarian leaders are often seen as bossy and unlikable, which may not motivate employees who do not want to please someone they dislike. In many cases, those working for autocratic leaders will only work when the boss is in the room or if they know they will be punished if they miss a deadline.

Autocratic leaders also discourage creativity among their employees, who do not feel like their contributions are valued. As a result, many great ideas may be left unsaid by employees who are tired of having their ideas shot down. This can be particularly problematic if the manager's employees have specialized skills that might bring unique expertise to the troubleshooting process.

Many experienced employees will refuse to work for someone who utilizes autocratic leadership methods, as they feel their knowledge is ignored, their skills are underutilized and their talents are unappreciated. On the other hand, authoritarian leadership is often useful in departments where the majority of employees are entry-level employees, as these workers need guidance and rarely have new or useful ideas to contribute to workplace problems.

Generally speaking, strict authoritarian leadership can result in short-term gains in a company or department but will often undermine morale and creativity, resulting in long-term damage.

What Are the Four Types of Leadership?

Authoritarianism is only one of the four main leadership styles and theories. The other three styles of leadership are democratic (or participative), laissez-faire (or free-rein) and paternalism. Each leadership style has its own benefits and drawbacks, just like autocratic leadership.

Democratic leaders are in many ways the opposite of authoritarian leaders because they decentralize authority, frequently consulting with their subordinates and involving them in the formation of plans and policies. These leaders actively seek out participation and ideas from employees and use these contributions regularly. Many times, the leader simply operates as the moderator among her group of subordinates, encouraging them to come up with suggestions and directing the conversation as necessary.

While authoritarianism might work better in old-school companies (it was the preferred leadership style in business until the 1970s) or empires focused on one specific head of the company (such as Donald Trump's businesses), many modern businesses perform better with democratic leaders who build upon the creativity and expertise of their entire team. The democratic leadership style often results in improved employee morale, shared goals between employees of all tiers, greater ability to solve truly complex problems, improved job performance, less absenteeism and greatly lowered employee turnover. On the downside, if there is too little guidance from the boss, democratic leadership can result in missed deadlines, a lack of drive in employees and a slowed decision-making process. Additionally, listening to employees' ideas consistently can occasionally result in resentment if these ideas are not implemented.

Laissez-faire leaders generally avoid responsibility and power whenever possible. These bosses try to not interfere with their employees, passing on the responsibility of decision making to their subordinates. These leaders do not provide direction and allow their workers to create their own goals, solve their own problems and set their own deadlines. In theory, each person in these groups should feel self-motivated and should put forth her best effort in order to achieve maximum results for the company. However, in practice, employees working under this type of leader often feel that they have been left to flounder with no direction for how or when to do their jobs. Employees often feel close personal connections with their bosses under this system; however, they also often do not respect their leader's authority and will often ignore or overlook the handful of directives they are given.

Finally, paternal leaders act as the parent of their employees. These leaders believe they know best, but they still encourage subordinates to come forward with their ideas. Like the father of a mid-century nuclear family, the boss looks out for his employees, guides their work and expects them to please him by completing their work according to his directives. These leaders will often provide employees with good wages and fringe benefits with the expectation that their subordinates will work harder out of gratitude. While some level of paternalism can benefit employees and may result in thankfulness, excessive levels will often make employees feel condescension from the leader, resulting in rebellion and resentment, just like many teenagers dealing with an overly patronizing parent.

Who Is an Example of an Authoritarian Leader?

Ask most people to come up with an example of an authoritarian leader, and they'll likely list dictators like Hitler, Mussolini or Lenin, but there are many business leaders who also famously implement the autocratic leadership theory. For example, Martha Stewart created a billion-dollar empire from the ground up by utilizing a strict, meticulous leadership style. As a result, she is now one of the most powerful women in the world. Stewart is known for being particularly demanding and scrupulous as a boss. On the other hand, Stewart has also valued the importance of employee motivation in order to make her employees feel valuable, helping to negate some of the downsides of autocratic leadership.

The New York Times is known for being run in a famously autocratic manner. In the 1970s, A.M. Rosenthal presided over the company, raising efficiency and profits through his strict leadership style. While his demanding requests were difficult for employees, the deadline-driven newspaper industry requires some level of authoritarian leadership in order to get the publication out every day, and ultimately, his direction helped lead the paper to become one of the most successful in the world.

New York Times executive editor Howell Raines took inspiration from Rosenthal's leadership style during his reign between 2001 and 2003. He enacted a policy known as "flooding the zone," which required reporters to use all resources to cover what he determined to be the most important stories of the day. Under his guidance, the paper won a record-breaking seven Pulitzer Prizes in one year. On the downside, though, Raines's leadership was characterized by callousness and heavy-handedness. Employees believed him to be contemptuous, dismissive and even sarcastic, taking over all coverage decisions and killing stories at will. He was even rude to senior journalists at the paper, overlooking all work done on the paper before his arrival. Eventually, his behavior caused employee dissention and lowered morale, resulting in a decline of the quality and quantity of information, both of which are critical in a newspaper office. Despite his success with the seven Pulitzer Prizes, Raines was fired after only 21 months on the job due to his negative impact on the overall workplace.

Another negative example of autocratic leadership was that of Leona Helmsley of the Helmsley hotel chain, who was so difficult to work with that tabloids nicknamed her "the Queen of Mean." Her leadership helped make the chain a success, but her exacting behavior and impossible demands resulted in a universally angry staff, ranging from the hotel maids to top executives. Her cruel behavior resulted in employees blowing the whistle on her unethical practices, including tax evasion, kickbacks and extortion, which resulted in criminal charges being levied against her. At trial, her personal maid testified against her, stating that Helmsley once bragged, "Only the little people pay taxes." In the end, Helmsley was sentenced to 21 months in prison as a result of her crimes.

One final example of the dangers of autocratic leadership is that of Albert J. Dunlap. He was hired as the chief executive officer of the Sunbeam Corporation in 1996. He fired around 11,000 people, or 40 percent of the company's workforce. This helped improve the company's bottom line and raised share prices in the short term, but the loss of talent resulted in long-term problems within the company that stretched long beyond his 20-month stint in the position.

How to Avoid Being Authoritarian in Business

While there is nothing wrong with embracing the strong leadership style of an authoritarian in specific, high-pressure situations, you shouldn't implement these practices at all times or you may suffer from the downsides of the autocratic leadership theory. Rather than abusing the power of your position and appearing as a bossy aspiring dictator, you should encourage employee contributions in situations where a decision does not need to be made instantly.

It is important to discourage employee resentment by utilizing the suggestions and expertise of your employees so they feel heard. Also, recognize the individual contributions your workers make in order to further motivate them and make them feel appreciated.

About the Author

Jill Harness is a blogger with experience researching and writing on all types of subjects including business topics. She specializes in writing SEO content for private clients, particularly attorneys. You can find out more about Jill's experience and learn how to contact her through her website, www.jillharness.com.

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