What do Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Queen Elizabeth I, and Vladimir Putin have in common? They are all examples of autocratic leadership—when one leader exercises complete, authoritarian control over a group or organization—or in the case of these famous autocrats, vast empires. Leaders who use the autocratic style typically make all the decisions with little to no input from others. It’s important to distinguish dictators from these leaders. All dictators are autocratic leaders, but not all autocratic leaders are necessarily dictators. Autocratic leaders are not in the business of using their power for oppression, instead this leadership style is more focused on power for pushing the group forward.
Still, as extreme as it may sound when it comes to running a company, there are instances when autocratic leadership can be good for business. This article will explore those instances as well those where this leadership would not be effective.
The purpose of the autocratic leadership style is to establish centralized control and use that control to achieve desired results, whether this be for a for-profit corporation or nonprofit organization. This leadership style is characterized by the following:
Limited input from stakeholders. The autocratic leader makes most if not all decisions, leaving little if any room for feedback. This might boost efficiency since decisions are made quicker, but it sure doesn’t boost team morale. If employees aren’t trusted with decisions or important tasks, they question the value they bring to the company and may very well pack up and take their skills to another. Let’s say a fashion editor at a major style publication went above and beyond producing a photo shoot and story, only to learn that it got scrapped because the editor-in-chief simply didn’t like it. Depending on how thick-skinned they are, a subordinate can only take so much rejection from an autocratic manager. In this leadership style example, autocratic methods may lead to someone wanting to quit and low morale.
Highly structured environment. Structure is an absolute must in any organization. But in an autocracy, the environment tends to be highly structured to the point of being rigid. When there’s no doubt who’s in charge with this leadership style, tasks can get accomplished more quickly—that’s the upside. On the contrary, the work setting can be too stringent in an autocratic environment. For instance, if a team member knows their performance is constantly being monitored, fear might be their only motivation to get the job done.
Clearly defined rules and processes. Under an autocratic leader, there’s no question who has the final say, whether it be on a critical business decision or how the company is run. When roles, rules, and processes are clearly defined in this leadership style setting, things tend to run smoothly and efficiently since one person is calling all the shots. But sacrificing employee creativity and input in the process risks missing out on brilliant ideas. Even worse, it sends a loud and clear message that their creativity or input is not valued. To illustrate this point, consider the classic “suggestion box” in which employees are invited to submit their ideas to improve the company. Merely having a suggestion box available sends the message that input from the workforce is welcomed and might even be considered. Not so much in a business with an autocratic leadership structure. For one, there would just never be a suggestion box. What would be the point if only one person is making all the decisions?
Bill Gates. The driving force behind Microsoft has a leadership style that’s a mix of authoritarian and participative. He’s a master delegator of tasks but at the same time understands the value of harnessing the skills of his team members to the fullest. This combination of styles led to the enormous success of the company.
Abraham Lincoln. Honest Abe rarely gave battlefield orders but made many autonomous decisions during the Civil War. According to Smithsonian Magazine, “He applied his large quotient of common sense to slice through the obfuscations and excuses of military subordinates.” The outcome of President Lincoln’s autocratic leadership style had a profound, everlasting effect on America: the abolishment of slavery.
Napoleon Bonaparte. The French Revolution military leader was notorious for his autocratic leadership style. He commanded a huge army without sharing his ideas with anyone. Clearly, his tactics worked. How else could he have expanded his empire to over 70 million people?
Autocratic leaders are stereotyped as bossy, brutal, and lacking empathy. Their absolute power can be intimidating and strike fear. Still, this style can work well where strong, direct leadership is needed. Here are some examples of when this clear chain of command can make or break a business or organization.
When urgent decisions need to be made quickly. With the responsibility falling on the top person in charge, there’s no need to get input from team members. The autocratic leader makes the proverbial executive decision and—boom—the process moves forward.
When work performance needs to be closely monitored. Keeping a watchful eye on employees ensures tasks are performed efficiently and effectively—and makes it easy to quickly identify problem areas in the workflow and take corrective action.
- When strict coordination of processes is crucial to productivity. With complex decision-making left to the leader, employees can focus on their specific responsibilities. Again, this speaks to high efficiency.
High turnover. Not giving employees a voice in company matters is bound to dampen morale, decrease productivity, and send them searching for other opportunities.
Resistance to change. An effective leader needs to be flexible and adaptable to change. Autocratic leaders might be resistant to this because they are so used to doing things one way: their way.
Little room for initiative and cooperation. An autocratic leadership work environment is not for the individual who thrives on collaboration and taking initiative. Employees who are proactive and knowledgeable about their role could find it challenging to work in an environment that doesn’t encourage contribution of their best skills. Empathetic leadership would be a much better fit. This leadership style is practically the polar opposite of autocratic leadership. An empathetic leader sees great value in making strong emotional connections with their employees.
Strong centralized control can help organizations meet their objectives. This can prove especially effective in work environments where there is little margin for error, such as a hospital emergency room. Let’s say an amputation is necessary to avoid spreading infection to the rest of a patient’s body. Only the ER physician could make that call. A nursing leadership role would also warrant autocratic decision-making. For instance, a team of nurses you manage relies on you to make a critical decision in how to administer care to a patient.
An inappropriate scenario for the autocratic leadership style would be an advertising agency pitching television commercial ideas to a client. The creative director may have the final say on what to present to the client but relies heavily on the knowledge and unique skill sets of a creative team to execute the work. Since the advertising profession calls for more of a participative management style, autocratic leadership, in this case, just wouldn’t work.
While autocratic leadership certainly makes for interesting conversation, it isn’t for everyone. No matter what type of leadership may appeal to you, seeking a business degree online from WGU could help you acquire the knowledge and skills you need to become an effective leader. Plus, if you already have leadership experience, this could help accelerate your degree in several of WGU's competency-based online programs. Find out today how WGU can turn you into one of tomorrow’s leaders!