Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a style of leadership where a leader dictates decisions by having absolute power, influence and control over the people they work with. They do not grant any participation of ideas or autonomy over their teams.

Some examples of specific behaviours of an autocratic leader are:-

  • Making decisions without input from their team
  • Controlling in detail, who, what, when, where, how a task is performed
  • Doing more “telling” than “asking”
  • Not listening to the needs of their employees
  • Authoritative communication style
  • Never admit to making a mistake
  • Low trust in their employees

Advantages of an autocratic leadership style

You might be shocked to read that there are advantages to this style of leadership. However, similar to things in life, it’s about a balance between the value and cost of that style of leadership.

Quick decisions

An autocratic leader make decisions quickly. Some leaders feel certain that they know an area inside out and know intuitively what to do. Seeking input from others can seem weak and a waste of time. Instead of asking for input, autocratic leaders tend to decide based on their own perspective and quickly trickle that decision down to the rest of the employees.

Clear expectations

Autocratic leaders are not afraid to spell out exactly what it is that they want and exactly how they want it done. For some employees, that clarity of expectations can be a relief as it is clear to them what task they need to perform and how it needs to be carried out. 

Faster communication

The communication style will reflect the decision-making style of an autocratic leader. Communications will mostly be top-down, decisive and direct. As there are no input being solicited from other layers of management, and potentially be lost in translation, information is quickly communicated to front-line employees doing the work. 

Easy to influence

Employees are intimidated by autocratic leaders since their leadership style is very much command and control. Employees tend to comply or withdraw and not assert disagreements or be discouraged from doing so. In this case, autocratic leaders can easily influence their employees to be on board with their ideas even if the employees disagree.

Disadvantages of an autocratic leadership style

Even though there are a couple of short-term advantages to an autocratic leadership style, the disadvantages listed here have long-term negative impacts on the team and organization.

Decisions made could be wrong or biased

Since an autocratic leader makes decisions without input from the employees doing the actual work, these decisions could be biased and worst, wrong for the organization. Often, autocratic leaders won’t know it’s the wrong decision until it’s too late because employees are not empowered to speak up and voice their concerns.

No employee ownership and creativity

Since decisions and communication styles tend to be top-down and authoritative, there are no incentive for employees to take on more ownership of any area or feel empowered to inject creativity into their work. Front-line employees who are closest to the customers are not empowered to make a real difference for the organization.

Reduced productivity and personal drive in employees

As explained in the book Drive, salary motivates employees up to a certain point and what really drives employees are autonomy, mastery and purpose. 

With an autocratic leader, there is no autonomy since decisions are made without any input. The “what” and “how” of the employees’ work is decided by the leader so employees are likely not encouraged to speak up.

Employees might be able to obtain mastery of their skills in an area however if an autocratic leader decides details of the work they do, their opportunity to learn by experimenting and making mistakes is probably frowned upon. 

Autocratic leaders can paint a compelling organizational purpose but micromanagement and lack of trust can erode that sense of purpose for employees. 

Teams have low trust

When an autocratic leader doesn’t trust their employees, the employees learn not to trust their leader as well. A lot of mental space, effort and time is used to defend themselves, go around each other due to low trust. When that time and effort could be spent more on innovative solutions.

Toxic culture

An autocratic leader’s command and control style of leadership creates fears and intimidation to work culture. Employees are afraid to speak up for fear of being reprimanded and would not work to improve the culture of the work environment. An environment of fear, survival of the fittest, blame and low trust create a toxic culture that is hard to work in. Toxic culture has been found to impact productivity and a business’s bottom line. A toxic culture can result in high employee turnover.

Attract the wrong talent

A command and control style of culture can attract talent who choose to work here because of compensation or other reasons but do not care about the company’s mission or customers. It could also attract talent who don’t care about their work as long as they’re told what to do. This can create a vicious cycle of having employees work on the wrong things and create a negative impact on the organization.

How can a leader with an autocratic leadership style create long-term success with his employees?

Quick decisions, but pause and listen for input

An autocratic leader can lean on their strength of knowing instinctively the right decisions and before executing, gather input from his team. That could mean:-

  • Be genuinely curious and ask others for their perspectives. 
  • Invite others to provide honest feedback and critique.
  • Be open to criticisms because they help you and the organization improve
  • Take their feedback and ideas seriously
  • Taking extra time to investigate their ideas
  • Changing your original idea

Clear expectations and structure, leaving space for creativity and autonomy

Instead of setting clear expectations on the who/what/when/where/how of a task, set clear purpose, responsibilities and structure instead. For example:-

  • Set a clear reason why a task is important
  • Make it clear which team is responsible for which areas and allow the team to figure out the details
  • Provide a clear structure of how work flows from one team to the next
  • Specify any rules that are required

This will ensure expectations are still clear for the team, and still allow room for creativity. Teams are empowered to operate within those boundaries.

Trust your teams but give feedback

Trusting your employees doesn’t mean blindly trusting them even if they don’t have the skills or tools to carry out the work. After ensuring that they indeed have all they need to perform the work, trust them to do the right thing. When they’ve made a mistake, provide feedback to them in a timely manner so that they can improve. They will soon see that you’re invested in growing them and will begin to trust you as well.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash