What Is Autocratic Leadership?

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Autocratic leadership is one-directional, top-down leadership. An autocratic leader is the sole authority in her company, on her team or at the head of the group she is tasked with leading. As with other leadership styles, there are autocratic leadership advantages and disadvantages that can have a significant impact on a leader’s employees’ careers as well as her own.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

In an autocratic style of leader-subordinate relationship, the leader provides clear rules, instructions, expectations and consequences for the subordinate’s failure to meet these expectations or follow her instructions, and the subordinate is expected to comply without question.

Autocratic Leadership Examples

Autocratic leadership is defined by the following:

  • Clear rules and expectations
  • One-way communication 
  • No employee input on business direction or strategy
  • A culture of total compliance 
  • The leader holds all the power
  • A high level of control over how employees perform their tasks
  • Clear repercussions for failing to meet expectations or follow rules

A few autocratic leadership examples include:

  • A general contractor who directs every aspect of a job and tells sub-contractors how to perform their jobs, rather than soliciting input from them

  • A restaurant manager who sets specific operational procedures and requires all employees to follow them regardless of the circumstances at the restaurant 

  • A prison warden who maintains strict accountability procedures for all corrections officers

  • A surgeon who shouts orders to others in the operating room

  • A sales manager who sets sale goals then implements corrective measures for employees who fail to meet these goals instead of working with them to improve sales figures

Who Uses Autocratic Leadership?

Autocratic leadership examples can be found in all types of organization. Beyond the business world, autocratic leaders can be found in government positions, nonprofit and religious organizations, fraternal groups and even within communities and families. Autocratic leadership is a set of traits and strategies employed in a leadership position and although it can correlate with specific personality traits, it is not always a characteristic that carries over into other areas of an individual’s life. An individual who is a strict, goal-focused autocratic leader in the workplace might be a flexible, easygoing member of his fraternal organization.

Workplaces Where Autocratic Leaders Thrive

Each type of work environment poses unique demands for team leaders. Some workplaces need a strict, confident leader who is not afraid to take the lead and ensure that the job is done correctly. A few examples of workplaces where autocratic leadership is not only effective, but can be the key to success, include:

  • Emergency response teams
  • Emergency and operating rooms 
  • Environments dealing with dangerous material 
  • Construction and manufacturing environments 
  • Military settings
  • Correctional facilities 

In all of these environments, making the wrong decision can lead to accidents that result in injuries and death. Even hesitating for a moment or spending seconds discussing an action, rather than just following the leader’s command, can put an entire team in danger in these environments. Any environment where workers need to follow specific instructions, where employees need substantial supervision or where there is only one correct procedure to follow is an environment well-suited to autocratic leadership.

Just like there are environments where autocratic leaders thrive, there are many types of workplaces where autocratic leadership only serves to demoralize employees and slow down workflow. These include creative environments, service-based workplaces and businesses where innovation is the key to staying competitive in their markets. In any workplace environment where collaboration, flexibility and creativity are the keys to success, autocratic leaders are typically less successful than other types of leader.

Autocratic vs. Other Leadership Styles

Understanding autocratic leadership advantages and disadvantages in the workplace is often easiest when one understands other common leadership styles and contrasts them with autocratic leadership. In many cases, contrasting different leadership styles is easiest when one recognizes these styles in leaders in his workplace and thinks about how differently he relates to these separate leaders. Common leadership styles include, but are not limited to:

  • Authoritative leadership
  • Laissez-faire leadership
  • Coach-style leadership 

An authoritative leader, also known as a democratic leader, makes decisions based on her team’s input. Although she maintains the ultimate decision-making power, she seeks input from her team members to guide her toward the right decisions for the team. In contrast, a laissez-faire leader leaves decisions up to her team entirely. This type of leadership can be extreme, but it can work in environments where every team member is highly skilled and able to work autonomously toward the group’s shared goal.

The term coach-style leadership refers more to a leader’s actions than to how she involves her team in decision-making. A coach-style leader is a leader who seeks out individuals with varied skillsets to develop a team that can succeed through any of the scenarios she anticipates facing. Often, these leaders encourage employees to develop their own skills and because of this trait, the term “holistic leader” is sometimes used to describe this type of manager. A coach-style leader can take an authoritative, laissez-faire and, in some cases, autocratic approach to managing her team.

Autocratic Leadership Advantages and Disadvantages

Autocratic leadership has numerous advantages in the workplace. It can also have many disadvantages and often, whether it presents more advantages or more disadvantages depends highly on the work environment where it is employed. The industry in which the leader operates, the overall skill level of his team and even the individual personalities on his team can create the perfect environment for an autocratic leader or an environment where an autocratic leader is doomed to fail.

Positive ways autocratic leadership can impact a workplace environment include:

  • Ensuring that all employees follow proper safety protocol, which prevents accidents and injuries

  • Ensuring that all employees follow correct accounting and financial reporting procedures, reducing the likelihood of accounting errors or legal violations 

  • Providing employees with a sufficient level of supervision so errors are either prevented or corrected quickly 

  • It can make it easier for a visionary leader to bring his goals to fruition

In addition to the advantages it can bring to the workplace, autocratic leadership has numerous drawbacks. A few disadvantages this leadership style poses include:

  • The leader is solely responsible for the team’s success or failure 

  • Good ideas and valuable insight from employees may be overlooked or outright ignored

  • Communication challenges can arise between employees and management 

  • Employees can lose motivation to perform well 

  • A company may lose skilled, motivated employees

  • Without the leader, the team might become paralyzed when facing a decision and ultimately fail to uphold the leader’s high standards

Autocratic Leadership’s Effects on Employees

Under an autocratic leader, every member of a team knows his role. He understands what is expected of him and what he can expect if he does not perform according to his role’s demands. He also understands that if he has a disagreement with his role’s tasks or if there is a reason why he cannot reasonably meet them, he cannot expect to discuss the role with his boss and have his point of view considered. In this type of work environment, it can be easy for employees to become demoralized because they feel their concerns and needs are not addressed.

In a workplace headed by an autocratic leader, employees might even be afraid to express their needs. Beyond employee demotivation, this can lead to employee burnout and a high turnover rate. It can also create resentment among employees and destroy any semblance of company loyalty they might otherwise have held. Because autocratic leadership means a highly supervised environment where employee input is discouraged, it can make employees feel like they are not valued and that they are viewed as incompetent.

However, autocratic leadership can have positive effects on employees. Working closely with a confident, procedure-focused leader early in one’s career can give her the foundation she needs to be successful in less rigid environments later. By streamlining workplace processes, an autocratic leader can avoid wasting his team’s time and create a productive work environment. By requiring total compliance with safety requirements and other regulations, he can also protect his team from harm, both physical and career-damaging.

Famous Autocratic Leaders

Famous autocratic leaders can be found in every category: politicians, business leaders, tech innovators and leaders in education. A few particularly famous autocratic leaders include:

  • Martha Stewart
  • Donald Trump
  • Bill Gates
  • Howell Raines
  • Leona Helmsley

Autocratic traits shaped these leaders’ career paths and public images. For example, Leona Helmsley earned herself the nickname “Queen of Mean” during her career as a real estate and hotel mogul. For each of these leaders, perfectionism and other autocratic qualities have come to define their brands, communicating their dedication to quality to consumers. But in some cases, other qualities, like being demanding and unflexible, have also become part of these leaders’ personal brands and turned consumers away from their offerings.

Meshing Autocratic Leadership with Other Styles

Although many famous autocratic leaders — and not-so-famous business leaders – rely solely on the strengths of autocratic leadership, many others employ a unique leadership style that takes traits from multiple leadership styles. For example, a manager might solicit team members’ opinions on business decisions and day-to-day operational concerns but expect that his instructions be followed with no feedback once he has decided on an action.

In some cases, managers employ autocratic leadership strategies with certain employees or groups of employees and other strategies with other employees. An example of this is a manager who provides new hires substantial oversight and instructs them on how to perform every part of their job, but eases off and employs a more authoritative style once the employees are comfortable in their roles.

For some leaders, employing strategies from multiple leadership styles is the result of their own outlook changes as they move through their careers. For example, a leader who started his career as a laissez-faire leader might become stricter, and thus more authoritarian, as the years pass and he gains firsthand experience managing people.

Alternatively, an authoritarian leader might become gradually more democratic as he realizes over time that his employees have a different perspective from his and that considering their point of view is crucial to company growth. Sometimes, a leader’s shift in style occurs when he changes industries or starts a new position and has to adapt to his new role’s demands.

It can take time for an individual to find a leadership style that works for him. A leader with a largely autocratic approach to managing people can also take care to make himself more approachable to employees by choosing to listen to their concerns and asking for their input when he feels it would be helpful. An autocratic leader can be a strong leader, but this leadership style is not inherently the strongest — or most effective — type of leadership to employ in the workplace. The most effective leaders are the leaders who motivate their teams to meet goals and get the job done.

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About the Author

Lindsay Kramer has been a full-time writer since 2014. In that time, she's experienced the ups, downs and crazy twists life tends to take when you're launching, building and leading a small business. As a small business owner, her favorite aspect about writing in this field is helping other small business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs become more fluent in the terminology and concepts they face in this role. Previously, she's written on entrepreneurship for 99designs and covered business law topics for law firms.