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What is Autocratic Leadership and When is it Effective?

by: Shiv Sharma

I have a vivid childhood memory of visiting a jam-packed market with my uncle who was in the army. As you can imagine, navigating markets in India isn’t easy. Life spills over and falls at your feet at each step. 

It was a sight to see my uncle clearing the way. “Move aside”, “Roll your cart to the other side.” People obeyed and did exactly what he told them. He wasn’t in uniform. There wasn’t a hint of aggression in his tone. Just the way he delivered “orders”, made people comply. 

I witnessed raw leadership, stripped to bare bones that day.  

Today we’ll discuss a leadership style that revolves around this core principle – autocratic leadership. It’s one of the three leadership styles mentioned by the famous psychologist Kurt Lewin. The other two being – Laissez-faire and democratic leadership. We’ll not get into them in this post. 

Yes, Kurt Lewin is the same person who created arguably the most popular change management model of all time. 

What is autocratic leadership?

Autocratic leadership is a style of leadership when the leader who has the power to make strategic decisions on their team’s behalf acts on it without their input. It’s also referred to as commanding or authoritative leadership. 

Autocratic leaders bestow unlimited authority on themselves. They have total control over their team members who have low autonomy themselves. Autocratic leaders set team goals, create the execution plan and monitor the progress closely. They make independent decisions even if the input from the team would help them. 

Is autocratic leadership useful?

Reading about autocratic leadership makes it seem like the root of all evil. However, in certain situations, it’s not just useful but the only viable option.

The head surgeon in the middle of the surgery won’t take a vote to decide which tools to use. A CO commanding his platoon in an ambush won’t look for approval. 

However, it’s not just life & death situations where autocratic leadership is useful. Here are a few benefits of autocratic leadership:

  1. Increases the speed – Because the power to make decisions is concentrated at the top, no time is lost in redundant meetings and chains of bureaucracy. This speeds up the overall decision-making process. Autocratic leaders can adapt their team faster to market conditions than their more democratic peers. 
  2. Better alignment – Since there are no different power centers in the organization, it’s the leader’s way or the highway. This makes it easier for the team to rally behind one goal and vision. 
  3. Relieves pressure – The leader doesn’t ask the team to make strategic decisions. They only need to focus on their to-dos and not worry about broader repercussions. The leader who has unlimited authority also carries equivalent accountability. 

What are the perils of autocratic leadership?

Being an extreme leadership style, unsurprisingly there are plenty of disadvantages of autocratic leadership as well:

  1. Reduces morale – There is a clear divide between the leader and their followers. This reduces the sense of ownership in the team, ultimately affecting the overall morale. Such an environment isn’t conducive for ambitious employees and leads to high turnover. 
  2. High risk – There is only one person making strategic decisions without input from the team. This leads to a higher risk of making uninformed decisions that can jeopardize the team’s goals. 
  3. Promotes flattery – Autocratic leadership promotes a culture of flattery in the team because the leader holds the strings for everyone’s destiny. The leader runs the risk of surrounding themselves with an army of yes-men. 

To gain its benefits, autocratic leadership should only be used when the conditions demand it. If a leader indulges in such behavior just to stroke their own ego, it’s a recipe for disaster. Sooner than later, the team will revolt and the internal dynamics would fall apart. 

This begs the question…

When is autocratic leadership effective?

Autocratic leadership carries a high risk/reward. It works wonders when used under the right conditions. However, it also can cause critical damage if the leader uses it simply for a power trip. 

There are three conditions that make autocratic leadership a popular option:

  1. Shortage of time – When the clock is ticking and the situation demands an immediate response, there is not better alternative than autocratic leadership. It cuts time wasted in bureaucratic procedures.
  2. Knowledge – When the leader is the most knowledgeable person in the group. It won’t make sense for an experienced CTO to get a marketing intern’s opinion on which developers to hire. Similarly, a high school football coach won’t ask their students for recommendations on the right technique. 
  3. Risk – During high-risk situations, people naturally tend to gravitate towards autocratic leaders. Teams feel more comfortable when the high risk is shared by their leader rather than themselves. 

What are some examples of autocratic leadership?

There is no dearth of examples of autocratic leadership in politics, so let’s look at a couple of examples outside of it:

Steve Jobs

Perhaps the most renowned effective autocratic leader of our times. Richard Branson once said that Steve Jobs’ leadership style was autocratic. He had a meticulous eye for detail and surrounded himself with like-minded people to follow his lead.

Jobs’ relentless pursuit of perfection played a vital role in making design an important part of an industry where it was always an afterthought. The reason why he is widely respected despite not being the nicest man in the office is because of his creative genius, sheer passion, and hard work. It’s the classic example of a leader embracing autocratic leadership in pursuit of perfection and not for stroking their own ego. 

Gordon Ramsey

Let’s ignore his outlandish insults that make for great TV. Gordon Ramsay’s approach to managing his kitchen staff is a great example of autocratic leadership. Each person in the team has specific roles and focus only on them, while Gordon conducts the entire operations like the conductor of an orchestra. Gordon shields the team from external factors and grooms them to strive for excellence. 

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