The Benefits And Pitfalls Of Autocratic Leadership
“The new sales director has incredible vision, and they know exactly how to get the team to hit their targets!”
“I don’t know, I just think they’re really bossy.”
This exchange sums up the two sides of the autocratic leadership coin. On the one side is the ability to rally people around a clear and defined vision; and on the other is alienating people by seeming bossy and unnecessarily strict.
An effective autocratic leader is one who understands - and carefully treads - this balance, in order to get the most from their team.
The benefits of autocratic leadership
When used effectively, this leadership style can bring many benefits to a workplace. Strength, clarity, and discipline are just a few examples of what you can expect.
Here are four key strengths of autocratic leadership.
Decisions can be made very quickly
In this leadership style, there is no need to gather consensus from your team or from other parts of the organisation when making decisions. Your say goes.
Because of this, autocratic leadership lends itself particularly well to high-stress situations where quick decisions are vital. Crises like an Ofsted inspection at school, for example; or when firm leadership is needed to restore balance to a company after a run of challenging months.
Organisational goals are reached unambiguously
With fewer people involved in the decision-making and goal-setting process, structure and direction can be established more quickly.
This is one of the key characteristics of autocratic leadership: As a leader, you decide the overarching objectives, as well as the strategies and techniques required to get there. Subordinates are not granted much independence, but effective autocratic leadership keeps them in line by explaining (or at least communicating) what needs doing.
Though it can prove controversial, unambiguous decision making is useful for organisations that are disorganised or staffed mainly by people with very little experience.
There is a clear chain of command
Clear goals and strong leadership often result in a well-understood chain of command and responsibility, which can allow certain workplaces to flourish.
Using construction work as an example: There is no need for each member of the team to contribute their opinion on how best to mix cement or lay bricks. Instead, applying each person’s skills in line with the overarching process makes more sense.
Productivity can greatly improve
An effective autocratic leader will have a keen eye on what is going on in their organisation. In real terms, this means fewer opportunities for subordinates to use their time in a way that might be considered wasteful.
With strong leadership, clear goals, and procedural discipline in place for not achieving them, subordinate productivity can be expected to improve.
The pitfalls of autocratic leadership
This leadership style comes with a few caveats that must be learned and understood to ensure smooth and effective implementation.
Each pitfall in this section is a mirror of one of the previous benefits. Autocratic leadership involves treading the line between the two sides of one coin: The traits that foster productivity, for example, may also stifle autonomy and creativity.
Creativity can be stifled
When you combine exclusion from the decision-making process with strict expectations on what work needs to be done - and how - it’s not hard to see how individuals may feel stifled in the workplace.
In roles and industries with a traditional expectation of being able to think freely and arrive at your own solutions for how work should be done, a sudden transition to a leadership style that restricts this can be suffocating.
If you decide autocratic leadership is necessary in your workplace, be sure to evaluate ways of minimising such negative reactions.
Not everyone feels aligned with the vision
While organisational goals can be set and dictated from the top, there is the risk that subordinates will feel isolated from this new vision.
Because autocratic leadership rarely includes a provision for advice and feedback, a very clear boundary is established between the leadership and their subordinates. This can quickly become a wedge that drives them apart: A very real risk when the vision and underlying reasoning are not effectively communicated.
Autonomy is reduced
A clear chain of command can be a good thing, but with autocratic leadership the people further down the chain may feel like their ability to think and act on their own accord is removed.
If subordinates know that their input will most likely be dismissed - if acknowledged at all - they will invest less time (and energy) in contributing suggestions to how things could be done differently. This means that a valuable source of feedback from within the organisation is shut off.
Morale can be negatively impacted
The crux of autocratic leadership is the balance between control and morale. In this system, a leader can make quick and strong decisions, establish a clear chain of command, and see productivity increase as a result. To fully reap its benefits, the leader must also understand the potential negative impacts on morale.
Subordinates will only put up with being told what to do if they feel very strongly aligned with the organisation, the leader, and the vision. Otherwise they will feel coerced, harangued, and, ultimately, beaten down.
If such negative feelings persist for too long, expect anything from simmering resentment to full-blown dissent.
One way to curtail this is to listen to concerns and, if possible, explain that they will be taken on board or addressed at a later time. This is easier when an autocratic style is part of the leadership mix - used only in relevant situations - than when it is an integral part of the organisational structure.
The advantages of autocratic leadership can easily outweigh the disadvantages, if implemented by a skilled and competent leader.
Though there are potential pitfalls, these often manifest when a leader tries to drive their subordinates too hard. Maintaining awareness of the balance required, as well as the ability (and hopefully, the desire) to prioritise subordinate wellbeing, lays the groundwork for effective autocratic leadership.
In reality, autocratic leadership is unlikely to be employed indiscriminately and unwaveringly. Effective leaders often use aspects of this style occasionally and sparingly, when the situation demands.
It is possible to reap the benefits without being labelled a tyrant!