Autocratic Leadership: Everything You Need to Know
It’s not always clear what an autocratic leader looks like and if that style of leadership actually works in a business setting.
It’s sometimes suggested that this style, and styles like it, are necessary in hard times to make sure everyone digs in and works hard towards the company goals. Whereas, a less authoritative approach is better utilised when a company needs to realise its potential. But why is this and is it even true?
So, without further ado, let’s look into just what autocratic leadership is and if it can ever actually work...
1. What Is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, can, most simply, be defined as a structure where there is one clearly defined “boss” at the top who holds most, if not all, of the control over distribution of workload and responsibility.
An autocratic leader does not take input from other members of the team when making decisions. Operations, methods, processes and delegation are all decided by the autocratic leader and the autocratic leader only.
In essence, autocratic leadership is the opposite of democratic leadership.
If you know anything about democratic leadership, you’ll know that it sounds preferable to autocratism and there are many studies that suggest this kind of approach is, understandably, more preferred by employees and team members. So, why on earth would you ever adopt an approach that goes directly against that?
Let’s look at a common misconceptions around autocratic leadership…
2. The Misconception of Autocratic Leadership
Let’s make no mistake, there is a reason that autocratic leadership exists. It’s not a fluke or a mishap. Autocratic leadership has been widely adopted by many organisations far and wide. We’d be naive to not consider the reasons autocracy has found a footing in a business context throughout the years.
So, when do organisations adopt an autocratic style? It’s mostly a last resort, when a company’s back is up against the wall and they need to generate results quickly no matter the method.
Why is this, though? Why, when we look at generating results, do we naturally look towards a hardline leadership approach like autocracy? Does autocratic leadership guarantee results? Or have business owners been getting it wrong for years?
Well, when we look at what traits are usually associated with an autocratic leader, we can see that they create a solid structure, within the organisation, with clearly defined roles and clarity of direction for all. Great - it can be really important for workers to be able to easily understand the structure of the business and a central vision that everyone is working towards.
An autocratic leader will set up clear lines of communication through the fact that there is one clear focal point at the top where decisions are made. Let me warn you, however, this does not mean the same thing as opening up lines of communication. In reality, an autocratic leader discourages open and honest communication even though these lines are clarified. It’s a paradox that often occurs in businesses - giving communication a clear direction can actually discourage it.
Essentially, if you’re looking towards autocratic leadership as a managerial methodology for your business, you’re looking for someone to crack the whip with little, or no, regard for the wellbeing of your team members.
Let me remind you, if it wasn’t already clear, this is not a form of leadership that I recommend - even in hard times. If you want to get the best out of your team, no matter the circumstances, you need to nurture them into generating the performance you want. An autocratic leader, by definition, is the opposite of nurturing.
So, what’s the real truth about autocratic leadership?
3. The Truth About Autocratic Leadership
So, we've spoken about why you might be thinking about adopting an autocratic leader but what is the honest truth about that kind of strategy?
In an organisation that practices autocratic leadership, group members are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks which can be a demotivating factor for many. When you build your organisation in the model of an autocracy, you strip away the responsibility of individual members which gives them every reason to feel demoralised within their roles.
Workloads tends to be regimented and meticulously ordered. Because of this, traits like creativity and innovation are discouraged in the workplace and employees are told to perform their role as it is outlined, leaving no room for them to grow or contribute ideas to the business.
We spoke about the ability to clearly define the lines of communication in business through autocratic leadership, but the trade-off for doing this is that you actually end up stunting communication across the board. Just because your teams know who to come to for a dialogue, doesn’t mean they will.
Let’s make something clear - this is not a slight on the personality of an autocratic leader, merely an observation of the effectiveness and impact of setting up a structure of autocracy. Plenty of autocratic leaders care for the progression and development of their staff but they are hamstrung by the system in which they operate.
At the end of the day, you can expect to drive your team to high performance and generate a culture of self-motivation if you don’t give your employees the tools to develop themselves. Autocratic leadership stunts personal growth as it gives team members no freedom to define their roles or provide input into the key decision that affects the business direction.
Just to reiterate, autocratic leadership is a style of leadership that directly contradicts the way I believe a team should be lead. By their nature, autocratic leaders do not follow the 10 Leadership Disciplines I’ve outlined in my Manifesto and are widely considered to be a dying breed in the modern business world - thank goodness!
Ultimately, employees don’t perform well when they feel they aren’t trusted in their roles. Adopting autocratic leadership tells your employees that you don’t trust them enough to give them input into the business’ direction. Why would anyone want to work for an employer who doesn’t trust them?
If you want to learn more about what leadership styles I do recommend, why not attend my next Leadership Athlete Masterclass?