An autocratic leader is a leader who has total control of the workplace she leads. This type of leader is sometimes referred to as an authoritarian leader. There are numerous leadership styles, each with its own benefits and drawbacks for the leaders, their employees and their organizations. Authoritarian leadership is associated with reliability and control.

Authoritarian Leadership Style Characteristics

In short, an authoritarian leader has total authority over the team he leads. This often stems from a combination of his own personality traits and his workplace’s culture. Workplaces operating under autocratic leaders typically exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • The leader is the sole decision maker
  • Little to no task delegation
  • Little to no discussion surrounding actions to take
  • Clear expectations for employees
  • Clear rules
  • A structured work schedule
  • The leader assumes responsibility for the work
  • The leader takes credit for the team’s successes
  • Swift punishment for employee mistakes

Although autocratic leaders are characterized as harsh and domineering in many media depictions of workplaces, interpersonal aggression is not one of the inherent qualities of an autocratic leader. An autocratic leader may have a friendly, approachable personality and lead her team with a firm, hands-off approach. Autocratic leaders are defined by how they relate to the work they are responsible for completing and the teams they lead rather than their personality traits. However, certain personality traits can make an individual likely to exhibit autocratic leader characteristics when in a position of authority.

Other Workplace Leadership Styles

Autocratic leadership is not the only type of leadership found in modern workplaces. There are many different ways to lead a team, and over the past century, there has been significant sociological research on these leadership styles and the results they produce. One well-known study of leadership styles was conducted by Kurt Lewin and published in 1939. Lewin’s research identified three primary types of leadership:

  • Autocratic leadership
  • Democratic leadership
  • Delegative leadership

Democratic Leadership Traits

Democratic leadership is characterized by leaders soliciting input from team members to make decisions. This type of leadership encourages collaboration and engages all members of a team, giving the leader the opportunity to consider multiple perspectives on an issue before making a decision. Although all team members weigh in on decisions under this type of leadership, the leader has the final say on the group’s actions.

Research has found that democratic leadership generates lower productivity than authoritarian leadership, but each team member’s individual contributions to tasks are of higher quality than those provided under an autocratic leader. Team members tend to feel more committed to groups led by democratic leaders because by soliciting their input, democratic leaders make individual team members feel valued and motivated to participate in group tasks.

Delegative Leadership Traits

In contrast, delegative leadership is characterized by the leader giving the team little to no direction, leaving them to reach their own conclusions and make their own decisions. In an environment headed by a delegative leader, team members can become confused and lose motivation because they do not know what to do and receive little feedback to help them determine how to handle the situations they face.

Delegative leadership is linked to low productivity and low motivation among team members. Although it can be an effective management strategy when every member of the team has a highly specialized role and knows how to contribute independently, it is largely ineffective with groups who need direction and motivation from their leaders. With the latter type of team, delegative leadership can lead to team members blaming each other for mistakes and failure to complete tasks.

Additional Leadership Styles

In the years and decades following Lewin’s work, other researchers have identified additional leadership styles. These include:

  • Transactional leadership
  • Transformational leadership
  • Situational leadership styles

Transactional leadership is leadership predicated on an exchange between the leader and the employee. Put into action, this could be the employee agreeing to follow the leader’s direction in exchange for financial compensation and employment benefits. In this type of employee/employer relationship, the transaction between the two parties is the central focus. Transformational leadership is characterized by the leader’s efforts to motivate employees to work toward individual and group goals. Under this type of leader, employees typically report high levels of self-satisfaction.

Situational leadership is not one specific type of leadership but a few different leadership theories based on the premise that leadership styles arise out of leaders’ environments rather than their own personalities. Within the different models of situational leadership, multiple leadership types have been identified according to the amount of direction a leader gives, the amount of input he expects and the support the leader provides to employees.

Autocratic Leadership Strengths and Weaknesses

In many ways, an autocratic leader is an effective leader. However, a completely authoritarian leader is not a perfect leader. Certain qualities of an autocratic leader benefit the organization he leads, while other autocratic leader characteristics can make his team less productive and hinder his organization to the point of stagnating it or even driving it into unprofitability.

Positive qualities of an autocratic leader include:

  • Clear boundaries for all team members
  • Reliability
  • A clear workplace hierarchy
  • Fast decision making
  • Efficiency in the workplace
  • Consistent enforcement of rules and expectations

Drawbacks to autocratic leadership include:

  • Little to no creativity or willingness to innovate
  • Getting stuck in old patterns
  • Limited collaboration among team members
  • Decreased employee morale
  • No trust among colleagues and between the leader and her staff

Where Autocratic Leaders Thrive

An autocratic leader tends to be most effective in work environments where following a prescribed routine or set of standards is of the utmost importance. Workplaces like construction sites and emergency rooms tend to benefit from this type of leadership because in these environments, a misunderstanding or a mistake can lead to death. Some autocratic leader characteristics can be beneficial or detrimental depending on the circumstances in which they are used.

One example of an autocratic trait that can be beneficial or detrimental is a leader’s focus on obeying established rules at all costs. In a commercial bakery where there are strict food safety and sanitation standards in place, an effective leader makes sure his employees adhere to these standards at all times. Consumers benefit from this adherence by buying and consuming safe, uncontaminated baked goods.

That same dedication to established rules can be detrimental in a workplace where innovation is the key to profitability, like a video game development studio. In this scenario, the autocratic leader who requires employees to stick to a set of established rules can inhibit innovation and prevent games from being as creative or technologically advanced as they might be under a less-authoritarian leader.

How Authoritarian Leadership Works

Put into action, the traits that define autocratic leadership create one-way relationships between leaders and their staff. The leader gives commands, not suggestions or invitations for collaboration, and employees are expected to follow those commands.

An autocratic leader does not ask his team for input on the decisions he is tasked with making. He sets clear expectations regarding workflow and goals and with these expectations sets clear consequences for failure to meet them. Employees can depend on him to mean what he says and not backpedal on his decisions or decrees. Although authoritarian leadership can seem austere, there are scenarios and work environments where it is the most effective way to manage a team.

Authoritarian leadership style characteristics can permeate an entire organization from the top down. The CEO might start a company with a single vision and use autocratic leader characteristics to keep all partners and employees focused on his vision, and in turn, managers within the organization might adopt qualities of an autocratic leader to maintain the same focus and cohesive company culture within their own teams. In companies where departments work fairly independently of each other, autocratic leader characteristics might crop up in one department, while another adopts a more delegative approach to management.

Autocratic Leadership in Action

A store manager may impose a five-minute punch-in period at the start of each employee’s shift. If an employee fails to punch in within this five-minute period, she is written up. After multiple writeups, she faces disciplinary action such as termination.

A senior partner at a law firm may direct all junior associates to handle their cases in a specific way, regardless of how the associates think they should handle their cases. This might mean instructing junior criminal justice lawyers to persuade their clients to accept plea deals even when the lawyers feel they have a good chance of winning their clients’ cases or a family lawyer instructing junior lawyers at her firm to push divorce clients toward mediation regardless of their situations.

The creative head of a digital marketing agency may decide each campaign’s creative direction and tell graphic designers, web designers, copywriters and all others involved in the project what to design and write rather than giving them the opportunity to explore their own ideas for the project.

Ways Autocratic Leaders Retain Talent

Because autocratic leadership can feel intense and sometimes stifling for employees, autocratic leadership is often associated with high employee turnover. This is especially true for employees who are highly skilled and can easily find work in less-stressful environments. Authoritarian leaders are intense and usually this creates stressful relationships between them and their employees.

Autocratic leadership does not have to create a toxic workplace. In many instances, some authoritarian practices balanced by traits from other leadership styles can create a healthy, productive workplace environment. A business owner or supervisor who recognizes autocratic traits in his leadership style can balance them by striving to:

  • Seek team members’ input on decisions
  • Value the input he receives from team members
  • Motivate employees with positive feedback
  • Offer constructive criticism rather than straight criticism when employees make mistakes
  • Acknowledge individual team members’ successes
  • Remain open to constructive criticism from team members
  • Provide support to help employees meet expectations

Defining an Effective Leader

An effective leader can also retain talented employees by knowing when to employ authoritarian leadership strategies and when to use other means of managing her team. Generally, the more direction a team needs, the better suited they are to autocratic leadership. A manager might take an authoritarian approach to leading entry-level employees but a more democratic approach with those who have been with the company longer and thus have the experience to work more independently.

Universally, certain traits are associated with effective leaders. These traits include:

  • Emotional intelligence
  • The ability to motivate employees
  • Clear communication skills
  • Assertiveness
  • Trustworthiness
  • Responsibility
  • Emotional stability
  • Creativity

These traits can exist alongside authoritarian leadership style characteristics to create a foundation for a healthy workplace culture. One thing all leaders who retain talented employees have in common is that they make their employees feel valued. When an employee feels she is understood and appreciated as a member of her team, she is motivated to work harder for the company and work more cooperatively with everybody on her team, her supervisor included.