What is autocratic leadership?
Autocratic leadership focuses all the decision-making for a company or project on one person. An autocratic leader dictates how to run the enterprise and expects everyone to follow their directions. They seek little or no input from subordinates and do not consider collaboration worthwhile for successful planning or management.
Autocratic leaders may delegate tasks and seek advice on specific topics, but they undertake the final decisions and typically need to approve of any work done without their direct oversight.
History of autocratic leadership
The history of autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, dates back to ancient times. One of the most well-known leaders of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar, was an autocrat who sought to consolidate decision-making powers by limiting the influence of the empire's senators.
Other famous autocratic leaders include Napoleon Bonaparte and Ghengis Khan, who enjoyed centralized control over both the military and government.
There are many autocratic leadership examples in business. Automaker Henry Ford and tech innovator Steve Jobs were known for their authoritarian styles. They surrounded themselves with like-minded people and managed some of the smaller details of their companies instead of delegating or asking for input from others.
Characteristics of autocratic leadership
Autocratic leaders have several characteristics that make them distinct from other leadership styles, such as:
- Centralized control: Unlike managers with a democratic leadership style, autocratic leaders typically ignore or avoid advice from others. They make decisions about the company, business strategies, and policies on their own. Ultimately, nothing major happens in the company without their direct say-so.
- Hierarchical structure: The company is structured in a way that centralizes decision-making power. Autocratic leaders expect subordinates to follow them and may promote those who do so to higher positions.
- Limited collaboration: An autocratic leader typically considers themself to be the most competent and knowledgeable person in the company or team. They rarely seek input or engage in strategy or brainstorming sessions with others.
- Fear-based motivation: A manager or executive with an autocratic leadership style might publicly call out employees who do not follow directions or meet expectations with their work. Workers might feel worried about getting left out of future projects or failing to earn promotions if they do not follow their leader's wishes.
- Authoritarian: Autocratic managers often demand loyalty from subordinates and may keep any workers who question them at a distance or punish them for offering dissenting opinions.
- High productivity: An autocratic leader can be highly productive. Since they organize and plan every aspect of a project or business operation, little time is wasted on debate or decision-making. Those who do not meet the leader's benchmarks or performance standards will likely be reprimanded.
Advantages and disadvantages of autocratic leaders
For many people, the autocratic leadership definition has negative connotations.
You may wonder, what is an autocratic leadership style good for in a company? Like any leadership style, autocratic leadership has both pros and cons.
Authoritarian leadership brings some positive qualities to a company. Many of the advantages of this leadership style have to do with efficiency and performance.
- Distinct roles within the company: Autocratic leaders typically assign well-defined tasks to employees. Everyone knows (or quickly learns) the expectations and is aware of the hierarchy within the group or company.
- Productivity and efficiency: Because there is no debate and every worker has clearly-defined roles, groups with autocratic leaders tend to work very efficiently. However, their overall success and effectiveness depend on the knowledge and planning abilities of the leader.
- Relieves pressure on workers: While workers may feel pressure to follow the leader's wishes and obey directives, they do not have to deal with the stress of making high-level decisions. The success or failure of the enterprise rests solely on the autocratic leader.
Autocratic leadership often works well in enterprises requiring time-sensitive decisions, such as the military, logistics, and security. It may also be successful in operations like manufacturing and construction, which have well-defined processes and require meeting deadlines.
The most obvious drawback to this leadership style occurs when the person in charge is not capable of making competent decisions or plans. The other disadvantages often have to do with employee dissatisfaction.
- Lack of creativity: In organizations with an autocratic leadership style, creativity is discouraged (or even punished). Employees cannot contribute creative solutions, even if they would improve the operation overall.
- Poor morale: Employees may resent a leader who requires them to obey directives without question and discourages input and outside-the-box thinking. They may not have pride in their work and feel like they are replaceable. This poor attitude may hurt performance and employee retention.
Fields requiring creative thinking, such as marketing, content creation, and research and development, are often not a good fit for autocratic leaders. Stifling input and out-of-the-box thinking can hurt a company's ability to compete and innovate.
For example, a company needs input from different employees if they want to achieve better marketing productivity, which would likely not be possible with an autocratic leader in charge.
How to navigate autocratic leadership styles
Team leads and team members may find themselves in a position where they have to deal with an authoritarian or autocratic leader. If you find yourself in this situation, here are the steps to navigate it successfully.
In projects with a single decision-maker, it is essential to communicate expectations. If workers understand what they have to do, it will limit their stress levels and reduce pressure.
Team leads should also seek answers from the leader or someone above them in the hierarchy when something is unclear.
Build a relationship with the leader
Team leaders and employees often fear autocrats. You can be quite sure that an authoritarian boss will not want to hear your new business idea.
However, if you can build a relationship with them, you can have an open line of communication for seeking clarification and providing updates about progress. With frequent communication, you may also learn how to frame information about setbacks in a way that does not upset them.
Prioritize your team members
Autocratic leadership styles may alienate some employees. It often falls to the team leader to make workers feel like they are valued members of a group and to drive employee engagement and productivity.
You can focus on these areas and make sure the employees have the direction and resources they need to complete the expected work.
Also, you can celebrate successes, such as reaching benchmarks on time. This recognition can help foster a sense of belonging and purpose within your team and increase morale, which could be lacking due to the overall leadership structure of the company.
Employees may take the criticism and demands of an autocratic leader to heart. It is always essential to stay professional and focus on the job instead of taking things personally.
Professionalism requires completing the tasks set in front of you. This requires focusing on the work and blocking out any personal opinions or emotions about the state of your company or disagreements with your managers.
Many autocratic leaders focus on results rather than processes, so employees and teams may be able to perform the assigned tasks as they see fit.
Develop a strategy for managing conflict
Conflicts may occur between authoritarian managers and the teams and employees under them. Preparation for disagreements can help you avoid derailing progress and harming morale.
It may be necessary to deliver work without communicating directly with the leader or seeking clarification. You can also provide updates through an intermediary, rather than speaking with them directly.
Seek support when necessary
You can seek support from peers who have experience dealing with this leadership style. They may be able to offer advice about managing your team or dealing with workplace issues.
Also, you can seek other people within the company hierarchy for support. They may be able to offer advice or advocate on your behalf if your team needs additional resources or if the leader places unrealistic demands on you.
Successfully guide your team through an autocratic leadership style
Autocratic leaders consolidate decision-making powers and oversight. This creates a workplace that may run efficiently but could also stifle creativity and lead to morale problems. It is typically up to team leads to deal with the workplace dynamic created by autocratic leadership styles.
In addition to focusing on employees and serving as a liaison between workers and the leader, a team lead can take advantage of this leadership style.
For example, you can employ MailChimp's tools to facilitate workflow automation. Autocrats often focus on results rather than the techniques your team uses to achieve them. In some cases, automated processes can increase your productivity and help you meet expectations and complete assignments efficiently.
Achieving reliable results that meet an autocratic leader's expectations is the best way to succeed in this type of workplace, and you can use Mailchimp to help you get there.