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What is autocratic leadership? Including benefits and examples

Autocratic leadership has both pros and cons

By Michael Feder

At a glance

  • Centralized control of decision-making with minimal input from subordinates characterizes autocratic leadership.
  • Autocratic leadership may be effective in organizations requiring efficient decision-making. Such situations usually include high pressure and little room for failure.
  • Autocratic leadership can lead to low morale among employees and an overdependence on leadership to make decisions.
  • Want to develop the skills that are essential to running an organization? Consider a business management degree from University of Phoenix.

What is an autocratic leader?

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.

3 characteristics of the autocratic leadership style

A few characteristics of autocratic leadership make it stand out from the democratic and laissez-faire alternatives.

Centralized decision-making

The main aspect of the autocratic leadership style is the power vested in the leader to make executive decisions. Not only do subordinates offer little to no input in these decisions, but leaders may even make decisions without regard for the potential impact on subordinates. They are free to make whatever decision they think is best with the expectation that their employees will follow their directions to a T.

Strict rules, standards and accountability

To enforce centralized decision-making, many autocratic leaders set strict rules for their subordinates. This can mean stringent quality standards or specific performance goals employees must reach. Employees who do not meet these standards can be punished or fired.

An autocratic leader is very concerned with the output of their employees, and that their standards are being met. This can lead to an atmosphere of surveillance in which employee activities are monitored to ensure accountability.

Little room for initiative

In a laissez-faire or democratic organization, leaders listen to their subordinates before making decisions. That is not the case in autocratic organizations, where employees are expected to wait on directions from their superiors and not to act on their own initiative. The roles of leader and subordinate are clearly defined and separated. Leaders create directives, and subordinates follow them.

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Advantages of autocratic leadership

Efficiency and productivity

With one person calling the shots, things can move very quickly. That can come with a boost in productivity, which can save time (and money!).

Less responsibility among employees

Though an autocratic organization may seem stressful, it can actually have the opposite effect in certain situations. By centralizing decision-making in one authoritative voice, it can remove the ambiguity that can make work stressful. Under autocratic leadership, employees know exactly what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to do it. That can be very helpful for a team made up of less experienced individuals who need strong, explicit instruction.

Crisis management

Some situations require swift decision-making and are actually made worse when bureaucracy and protocol gum up the works. Autocratic leaders are in a strong position to deal with a crisis by directing a response quickly. In situations where time is of the essence, this decisiveness can be … decisive!

Disadvantages of autocratic leadership

The aspects of autocratic leadership that make it successful can just as easily have the opposite effect. This type of leadership has several drawbacks that are important to understand.

A lack of trust

Running an organization autocratically requires a high level of supervision, which can signal a lack of trust that lower-level employees can get the work done on their own. And the mistrust cuts both ways. When employees are outside the decision-making process, it can be hard to understand and trust the people issuing directives.

Diminished morale

The autocratic leadership style can leave employees feeling like their opinions do not matter, which can lead to diminished morale and productivity. Employees may not want to invest energy into work that does not reflect their personal contribution.

Overdependence on leadership

While a centralized leadership can respond effectively to a crisis, it can also leave the organization vulnerable to crisis. By centering so much responsibility on one person, that person’s absence or inability can make a bad problem worse. If an autocratic CEO suddenly becomes incapacitated, subordinates may not have the necessary know-how or authority to make decisions in the CEO’s stead. In a crisis, that can be disastrous.

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Examples of autocratic leadership

Here are some examples of how autocratic leadership might be applied within an organization.

Situation 1: Emergency room nurse

In the field of healthcare, there is a time and place for democracy and deliberation. An emergency is not that kind of situation. Physicians and nurses need to act quickly to administer care, so in many emergency rooms, an attending physician may be charged with the authority to direct nurses and others. They expect their directives will be followed quickly and explicitly.

Situation 2: Schoolteacher

Though the ins and outs of school administration can be a very deliberative process, the classroom dynamic between teachers and their students can be described as autocratic. Especially for young students, teachers have a set lesson plan they expect students to follow. Even if an entire kindergarten class would rather substitute snack time for a math lesson, it’s just not going to fly.

Situation 3: Call center supervisor

Autocratic leadership can work well for employees who are less experienced and who need direction to achieve their goals. Call centers, for example, are often staffed with entry-level employees overseen by a manager. They usually follow a script to perform customer-service tasks over the phone, and a supervisor closely monitors their calls. This supervision allows their manager to see where their team is successful and where they are not. They can then make decisions unilaterally to direct their subordinates toward better performance.

What is the most effective leadership style?

Some organizations require centralized leadership to run efficiently, while others suffer under the intensive top-down power structure. The autocratic leadership style will more likely succeed when …

  • An inexperienced team needs explicit direction
  • Work is high stakes and with little room for error
  • Rules and regulations must be strictly observed

An ideal autocratic leader may have …

  • A personal sense of direction and decision-making ability
  • The ability to inspire others
  • Little interest in outside creative input
  • A personal embodiment of an organization’s mission and goals

It is important to keep in mind, however, that each organization calls for its own leadership style. What works in one organization can fail in another. And, in some companies, a healthy mix of leadership styles can be more effective than just one. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of autocratic leadership is just one aspect of a strong, organizational mindset.