Pros and Cons of Autocratic Leadership
If Your Leadership Style Isn't Getting Desired Results—Change You
You may not have heard of the term “autocratic leadership,” but you’ve definitely encountered people who lead that way. You may have had a boss who is autocratic, or you may be an autocratic boss yourself. And just like any leadership style, there are good characteristics and bad characteristics of autocratic leadership. But, first, you need to share this definition.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
As the name suggests—it’s a very self-styled leadership. The leader doesn’t take input from others and makes all the decisions. VeryWellMind, a publication which focuses on psychology, describes autocratic leadership as follows:
- Little or no input from group members
- Leaders make almost all of the decisions
- Group leaders dictate all of the work methods and processes
- Group members are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks
- Highly structured and very rigid work
- Tends to discourage creativity and out-of-the-box thinking
- Rules are important and clearly outlined and communicated
This seems counter to today’s advice about democratic leadership or servant leadership, and it is. But there are times when autocratic leadership is a real advantage, and there are times (of course) when it is the worst idea ever.
The Pros of Autocratic Leadership
If you’re running a business or a department, that needs to follow strict protocols—either because of government regulations or business needs—an autocratic leadership style can make sense.
For example, call centers often have strict protocols that employees must follow. These protocols don’t allow room for a lot of creativity or out-of-the-box thinking on the part of the employees. The manager dictates the rules and the employees follow them, end of story.
Autocratic leaders can also find success in areas with strict regulatory protocols. You may identify a better way to do the work, but the government simply won’t allow it. Leaders don’t gain advantages by listening to and considering new ideas from other people.
Perhaps, though, one of the most significant benefits of autocratic leadership comes when the leader has a clear vision and is brilliant enough to be right.
Many people identify Steve Jobs and Martha Stewart as famously successful autocratic leaders. Jobs and Stewart both knew what they wanted and set out to achieve it, and if you didn’t get in line, you didn’t last long. Similarly, Walt Disney had his dream, and he set out to follow it, to great success.
All three had brilliant ideas and brilliantly implemented their ideas. If they had had more mediocre ideas, they would have benefited from a more democratic leadership style.
The Cons of Autocratic Leadership
Starting with Jobs, Stewart, and Disney, though, you can see that there are some problems when only one idea person exists. Jobs was fired from his own company (although he did come back to run the company again—successfully). Stewart landed in prison. Walt Disney had his brother, Roy Disney, who Walt could not fire, keeping him towing the financial line.
Many people do not enjoy working for a boss who just tells you what to do and how to do it. So, unless the autocratic leader is genuinely brilliant and has a sparkling personality, people who are autocratic leaders may have difficulty encouraging employee engagement.
It’s also easy for an autocratic leader to slip into micro-management. While they can seem synonymous, they are not. An autocratic leader generally wants his or her ideas implemented, but doesn’t have to stand over you and dictate every small detail like a micro-manager would. A micromanager can also elicit ideas from staff and have an unstructured workplace but controls parts of the work to an extreme level.
If You’re an Autocratic Leader
If you like being in charge and have a grand vision that you want others to implement, you may be an autocratic leader. What you need is someone to check—a Roy to your Walt. If you’re a middle manager, this person is often your boss. If you’re the owner or CEO, having a board to whom you listen is helpful. What you need is clear feedback that you listen to—otherwise, you may find yourself failing.
When you hire, look for people who are happy to carry out your ideas. If you search for highly creative-out-of-the-box thinkers, you’ll end up with an unhappy staff.
On the other hand, if you tend toward democratic or servant leadership, don’t hire people who want to do their job and go home without any thought about coming up with new ideas. They won’t be happy under your leadership either.
Suzanne Lucas is a freelance writer who spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.