An autocratic leader is one who has total control over the team he leads and the projects he oversees. With this in mind, many people can think of an autocratic manager with whom they have worked or can come up with an autocratic coach example. Although autocratic leaders often get labeled as tough, domineering and uncaring about their teams’ well-being, there are many circumstances under which autocratic leaders thrive and lead their teams to success.
The keys to working effectively with an autocratic leader are understanding the autocratic leadership traits, the circumstances that drive these traits and how to communicate effectively with an autocratic leader.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
An autocratic leader, also known as an authoritarian leader, is a leader who maintains total control over her team.
Autocratic Leaders in Government
An autocratic government is one that is headed by a single, all-powerful leader who is not subject to the kinds of checks and balances present in democratic governments. For example, the United States federal government is made up of three branches:
- Executive branch (the president’s office)
- Legislative branch (Congress and the House of Representatives)
- Judicial branch (the Supreme Court)
These three branches have a checks and balances relationship, which means that all three have equal power. This prevents a scenario where one branch seizes control of the United States government and creates an autocracy or a communist state – a government ruled by one party rather than by one person. With an autocratic government, all governmental power is concentrated in one office. Historically and today, autocratic governments are referred to as absolute monarchies and dictatorships.
Perhaps the most well-known modern example of autocratic government is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, also known as North Korea. North Korea’s government is headed by Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. Although North Korea’s government technically has three branches, these branches do not operate independently of each other. These three branches are controlled by one party, the Workers’ Party of Korea.
Autocratic Example in Sports
One common area in which to find autocratic leadership examples is sports. A team’s coach, the team captain, its manager or its owner can exhibit autocratic leadership traits. Sometimes, multiple leaders within a sports organization exhibit autocratic traits, and this creates a strict, success-focused team culture.
Autocratic leadership can be quite effective in sports, especially with inexperienced teams that need a lot of direction from its leaders. With an autocratic leader in place, every member of the team – including members who are not players, like the team’s staff – knows exactly what is expected of him. With clear-cut expectations, boundaries and consequences for failure to meet expectations, every member can focus on giving his best performance rather than figuring out exactly what he is expected to do. Generally, autocratic leadership is most effective with groups that need to be taught what to do and guided through their work, no matter what type of work they perform.
In contrast, having an autocratic leader at the helm of a sports team can inhibit players’ creativity and keep the team from evolving to remain competitive in its league. He might drive talented players to pursue opportunities with other teams or make them afraid to voice their concerns with proposed plays or strategies. When a leader’s autocratic style consistently drives away talent, he can doom his team to losing popularity and, by extension, losing profitability. Sports franchises are businesses, and just like in any other industry, an autocratic leader can help or hinder the team he leads.
Three Unique Coaching Styles
There are three recognized coaching styles:
An autocratic coach is one who exhibits autocratic leadership traits like top-down communication and a refusal to deviate from the established rules. A democratic coach is one who invites players to express their ideas, concerns and goals for the team. With a democratic coach, players typically feel more valued as individuals than they do with an autocratic coach. Drawbacks to democratic coaching include a failure to create a cohesive game plan and indecisiveness on the coach’s part.
Holistic coaching is a coaching style that brings life coaching and attention to the players’ personal well-being into the role of sports coach. A holistic coach might advise players on specific diets and exercise regimens to follow and lead meditation or yoga sessions to help players get into a healthy mindset before games. Holistic coaches tend to build strong relationships with their players, which can lead to greater individual commitment from the players as well as too great a focus on development outside the athletic realm, taking time away from sports-related coaching.
Understanding an Autocratic Coach Example
Coaches do not only lead sports teams. Many people work with life coaches to develop and pursue their personal and professional goals, and many companies employ business coaches to help them achieve profitability and growth. An autocratic coach example in one of these scenarios is quite similar to an autocratic sports coach: a coach who accepts nothing less than total compliance with directions and the perfect result.
Traits Inherent to All Autocratic Leaders
Although many people will provide an autocratic coach example when asked about their experiences with autocratic leaders, coaches are not the only kind of leader who often display autocratic tendencies. Authoritarian traits can manifest in people occupying any position of power, such as:
- Managers in the workplace
- Parents and other family leaders
- Religious leaders
- Community leaders
- Individuals in governmental positions
Traits that characterize autocratic leaders include:
- Power consolidated into one person’s hands
- Distrust of subordinates' capabilities
- Clear expectations
- Clear consequences for failure to meet expectations
- Taking full responsibility for all work produced
- A sole focus on completing tasks at hand rather than developing the team’s skills
- Refusal to delegate leadership tasks
Autocratic Leadership in Action
When searching for an example of autocratic government, one might instead describe the traits of an autocratic leader. Autocratic leadership examples in government positions and all other leadership roles include:
- Leaders who make threats and follow through with them when necessary
- Leaders who issue ultimatums and, similarly, follow through with them
- Leaders who refuse to take direction or advice from advisors or subordinates
- Leaders who maintain a high control over how followers are to perform work and handle personal affairs
For example, North Korean citizens must obtain government permission not only to leave the country, but to travel to other regions of North Korea. They are not permitted to verbally criticize the nation’s government nor are they permitted to access media other than that produced by the state.
Not all instances of autocratic leadership are so extreme. In a company setting, this type of leadership can manifest as a manager who refuses to allow employees to adjust their shifts to accommodate their family needs. Another autocratic leadership example is a matriarch who refuses to adjust her established family holiday traditions to give her children time to visit with their in-laws.
Autocratic Leadership Negative Effects
Autocratic leadership, just like all other types of leadership, has a profound impact on subordinates. Employees working for authoritarian leaders often feel dominated, undermined, undervalued and discouraged. A few long-term effects an autocratic workplace culture can have on employees are:
- A lack of innovation because employees are afraid to think outside the box
- A culture where harassment is overlooked and tolerated
- A high turnover rate
- A lack of trust at all organizational levels
- Employees putting in little or no effort
- Employees working to please their bosses rather than to achieve company goals
Autocratic Leadership Positive Effects
Autocratic leadership can have positive effects on employees too. Employees can develop a strong respect for their organization's rules and procedures when autocratic leadership traits are used to motivate rather than to control. A few positive effects of autocratic leadership are:
- Strong leadership
- A cohesive company focus
- A culture of respect
- Every team member knows exactly what to do in every situation and whom to ask for help when necessary
- A culture of accountability
Effects of Autocratic Traits on Leaders
An authoritarian workplace culture has effects on its leaders too. It does not just affect the leader exhibiting the autocratic traits but the leaders above and below her in the company hierarchy as well. Employees who are pursuing management positions may incorporate her leadership style into their own, perpetuating the culture she has created. Depending on her personality and her team’s output, this can drive her to become even more autocratic, or it can give her pause and push her to reconsider whether she could make changes to become a more effective leader.
Autocratic leaders who reconsider whether strict authoritarianism is the ideal management style may determine that they need to incorporate some democratic leadership strategies to balance out their autocratic traits. This could mean consciously choosing to listen to team members’ suggestions and consider them or opting to delegate certain management tasks to others.
When an autocratic leader sees that her management style is driving strong results, she may take pride in her tough approach and continue to cultivate a focused, results-driven workplace persona. One of the hallmarks of an autocratic leader is reliability, and she may use her track record of success to drive new initiatives that stress reliability and responsibility within the organization. When pursuing new opportunities within her organization or with a new organization, she will likely point toward her success and her strict, focused management style as the reason for that success when interviewing to demonstrate why she is a candidate worthy of greater responsibilities than she had before.
Working With an Autocratic Leader
When communicating with an autocratic leader, a team member has to be direct. Authoritarian leaders make direct requests of their teams and expect compliance. Although an employee might feel intimidated by his boss and hesitant to voice his concern about one or more of the directives, bluntly voicing his concern is often a more effective strategy than being indirect, passive aggressive or coy.
Employees working for autocratic leaders are often advised not to take criticisms personally because the criticisms are critiques of their work rather than their worth as people. An autocratic leader has a one-track mindset, and when he points out an employee’s failure or shortcoming, he does so with a focus on how the employee’s action resulted in an unwanted result. Other tips often given to employees working for authoritarian leaders include:
- Let the boss feel like he is in control
- Follow directions as perfectly as possible
- Be accountable for all actions
- Treat the boss with respect
- Respect the company’s rules, culture and procedures
An autocratic leader does not automatically mean an abusive leader, but in some instances, authoritarian leaders create toxic workplaces. When an employee feels he is working in a toxic environment, he is advised to document every incident he feels is abusive and report his experience to human resources to resolve the issue. Even in the strictest workplaces, employees have rights. Those rights include the right to be treated fairly and respectfully.
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.