Autocratic Leadership – When Should You Use It? (Pros & Cons)

Autocratic leadership, also referred to as authoritarian leadership,  style is authoritative: the leader or manager issues instructions without explanation, and the team members follow them with no questions asked. The autocratic leadership style is generally criticized mainly because it is outdated, and there are more participative leadership styles such as transformational leadership or servant leadership.


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Although autocratic leadership might sound coercive, in some cases, autocratic leadership is the best approach and used by some famous leaders such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates.¬†We’ve explained what autocratic leadership is, its characteristics, when to apply this style, its pros, and cons, and famous autocratic leaders in this article.

What is Autocratic Leadership – Authoritarian Leadership?

Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style where leaders or managers have full control and authority to make all decisions with limited input or participation from the team members or others. Autocratic leaders make decisions on their own using their intuition, experience, moral values, and insights. They take no input or limited input from the others.

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In the 1930s, Kurt Lewin developed a framework based on a leader’s behavior. Lewin argued that there are three types of leaders:

  • Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their teams. Authoritarian leadership is considered when a quick decision is required, when the leaders do not need any input, or when the consensus of the team is not critical for a successful result.
  • Democratic leaders¬†foster team participation before making a decision. The level of participation depends on the leader. Democratic leadership style is considered when a consensus is important to get team buy-in. Note that, if there are several differing ideas in the team, it might be difficult to manage and reach a conclusion.
  • Laissez-faire leaders¬†do not step in; they create the environment for maximum participation, and let the people make many of the decisions. This leadership style works when there are competent resources in the team, people are motivated, and require minimum supervision. You can read more in the Laissez Faire Leadership article.

When there is a more fancy and popular word, “Democracy”, autocratic leadership may sound dim or avoided.¬†However, there are many cases where autocratic leadership works as the best approach.

ūüí° Read 15 Types of Leadership article to learn about other leadership styles.


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7 Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership Style

While there are several characteristics of the autocratic leadership style, we have listed the top 7 characteristics.

1- Minimum Group Participation

Autocratic leaders decide on their own, based on their insights and experience. They ask no questions, or minimum questions to their team members. They order the team and expect the team to follow them with little or minimum questions.

2- Leaders Make All Decisions

Autocratic leadership requires leaders or managers to make all decisions. To ensure this, the hierarchy and culture of the organization should give authority to the leader. While autocratic leaders make all decisions, they may ask some questions to their team on technical or expertise-needed topics.

3- Provides Leaders Dictatorship

“Dictatorship” may sound repressive. However, autocratic leadership allows the leaders to dictate the ground rules, methods, tools, techniques, and processes to the team. This is a must to ensure quick decision-making and application.


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4- Discourages Creativity and Innovation

In autocratic environments, leaders expect the team members to perform their tasks with no or minimum questions asked. There is no room for innovative thinking or creativity. Even if the resources are capable of providing creative and innovative outputs, autocratic leadership may hinder their capacity.

5- Creates a Highly Hierarchical and Rigid Environment

Autocratic leadership requires strong leadership or managerial authority. This requires a structured organization and a top-down approach.

6- Minimizes Team Building and Feeling

Since autocratic leaders make their decisions on their own, team members may feel they are unimportant or not trusted. If autocratic leadership is needed, make sure to visit team members and motivate them.

7- Establishes Clear Rules and Communication

Autocratic leaders make quick decisions and expect their team to follow them immediately. They expect quick results. This requires a clear set of rules and communication. So, team members do not hesitate on the tools or processes to use when they are performing their tasks.

Top 3 Benefits and Flaws of Autocratic Leadership

As with any leadership style, autocratic leadership has its own benefits and flaws as well.

The top 3 benefits of autocratic leadership are:

  • Allows for quick decision-making, especially in stress-filled situations. Leaders or managers make all decisions. Since there is no or minimum group participation, leaders can make quick decisions. This can provide a tremendous advantage in emergencies or tight schedules.
  • Offers a clear chain of command or oversight.¬†Autocratic leaders are the ultimate authority in their team. Therefore, when they make a decision, group members follow the autocratic leaders with minimum or no questions.
  • Works well where strong, directive leadership is needed.¬†When leaders are knowledgeable, experienced, and have broad foresight, autocratic leadership works well. Because, decisions rely on one person, the leader and it must be the optimum decision to achieve success.

The top 3 flaws of autocratic leadership are:

  • Discourages group participation.¬†Autocratic leaders make a decision and do not ask the opinion of their team members. This hampers the team building, team feeling and motivation of the team members.
  • Hurts morale and leads to resentment.¬†Since the team members are expected to follow the orders from the autocratic leader, they may feel like robots. This can hurt the morale of the individuals.
  • Ignores or impairs creative solutions and expertise from subordinates.¬†If the team has competent and experienced members, they might have better ideas to propose. However, autocratic leadership hinders group participation, so creative and innovative solutions from subordinates are unlikely to arise in autocratic cultures.

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When to Use and Avoid Autocratic Leadership?

The benefits and flaws of autocratic leadership guide us on when we can use autocratic leadership and when we should avoid it. We’ve given three examples of each when to use and avoid autocratic leadership style.

3 Cases to Apply Autocratic Leadership

Emergencies, time-critical tasks, and having an inexperienced team are the best cases to apply autocratic leadership.

  • Emergency cases:¬†quick decisions and fast reactions are needed in case of emergencies. This requires minimum time to decide on a solution. Autocratic leadership will work in emergencies.
  • Time-critical tasks:¬†When there is time pressure, there might not be time to evaluate different perspectives and opinions from the team. Autocratic leaders make decisions, and team members follow orders. Therefore, autocratic leadership may be beneficial for time-sensitive projects or tasks.
  • Inexperienced teams:¬†If your team members are junior and need maximum guidance to perform, autocratic leadership may be better. Also, it is less likely to receive creative ideas from junior professionals, so, group participation may not be needed if you have an inexperienced team.

3 Cases to Avoid Autocratic Leadership

If you have creativity-requiring tasks, team development and training, and relationship-building tasks, avoid using an autocratic leadership style.

  • Creativity-Requiring Projects/Tasks:¬†Creativity and innovation requires group collaboration. To ensure this, group members must be encouraged to maximum participation. This allows new ideas to arise from the team. This is against the autocratic leadership culture.
  • Team Development and Training:¬†If you are growing the competence of your team or enhancing their skills, you need to talk and get feedback from them. Therefore, you need maximum involvement of the team during team development and training.
  • Relationship-building Projects/Tasks:¬†If your work requires interaction with your team members, you need to build your relationship with each and every individual in the team. Autocratic leadership may not be appropriate in these cases.

Famous Autocratic Leaders

We have gone through several aspects of authoritarian leadership. Do we know any famous autocratic leaders? I am sure you know all of them but you may be surprised that they are autocratic. Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Adolf Hitler, and Napoleon Bonaparte are a few to name from famous autocratic leaders. You may be surprised to see Hitler, Musk, and Gates in the same sentence, however, authoritarian leadership can lead to good and bad results, depending on how you use it.

We’ve picked three autocratic leaders for this article.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk is a business magnate and investor. The SpaceX and Tesla CEO is an autocratic leader in many of his ventures which lead them into fast growth and tremendous success. He often makes quick decisions that team members haven’t vetted. So, Elon Musk is definitely at the top of our famous autocratic leaders’ list. You can read about the other characteristics of Elon Musk leadership.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates was using both authoritarian leadership and democratic leadership. He asked for the ideas of his team members and valued the group participation. However, in some cases, he was the quick decision maker and excellent delegator of the tasks even if the majority of the team was thinking differently than him. Bill Gates leadership style shows four other leadership traits.

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Napoleon Bonaparte

The French Revolution military leader was known for his infamous autocratic leadership style. He commanded a huge army and, later, an entire nation comprising millions of people without sharing his ideas or military tactics with anyone. However, his tactics worked, and he became one of the greatest military leaders in history.

Summary

At first glance, “authority”, “autocratic”, or “authoritarian” may sound outdated, especially when all the world is talking about “democracy”. However, authoritarian leadership may result in the best outputs in some cases such as emergencies, inexperienced teams, or time-sensitive tasks.

If your work requires creativity, team development, and relationship-building, you should avoid an autocratic leadership style. There are critics of authoritarian leadership as it may decrease team morale, and group participation and may make the individuals unimportant.

Despite many critics of authoritarian leadership, it has been applied by today’s most wealthiest and successful businessmen such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

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