For some organizations, quick and effective decision-making can spell the difference between success and failure. In such situations, concentrating that decision-making power in the hands of one individual, such as a CEO or president, can cut through the bureaucracy and accomplish critical work at critical times. At the same time, that lack of team input can be demoralizing and inefficient for an organization.
Autocratic leadership, characterized by this centralized style of leadership, is an important concept in business, economics and politics. With little or no input by their subordinates, autocratic leaders are free to make decisions, define policies and direct work wherever they feel is most effective.
The three commonly observed leadership styles, as defined by psychologist Kurt Lewin in 1939, are:
1. Laissez-faire or delegative leadership
From the French, laissez-faire translates to “let be.” Though often used in economics to define an economic system free of supervision or regulation, it has a corresponding meaning as a leadership style. In this style, leaders give their subordinates a great amount of autonomy and independence to make decisions and take action. Laissez-faire leaders are generally responsible for assembling and overseeing the team as a whole but do not involve themselves in the nitty-gritty of the work itself.
2. Democratic or participative leadership
Halfway between hands-off laissez-faire leadership and centralized, autocratic leadership sits democratic or participative leadership. In this style, leaders are vested with much of the executive ability and responsibility of an organization but rely heavily on subordinate input. Subordinates feel that their contribution is valued. At the same time, they understand they are not the final decision-makers.
3. Autocratic or authoritarian leadership
The most centralized of the leadership styles, autocratic or authoritarian leadership leaves little in the hands of subordinates. With this style, leaders wield an outstanding amount of power in an organization, and do not invite or implement subordinate input. The success and failure of the organization is tied directly to the success and failure of its autocratic leader.
At their most extreme, autocratic leaders involve themselves in every action made by their subordinates. It can involve an intense amount of attention and control, so that tasks are accomplished when and how they should be.
Autocratic leadership may seem strict, but in some types of organizations, it can be the preferred leadership style. Understanding the characteristics, benefits and disadvantages of autocratic leadership can help determine where and how it can be best applied.