The Autocratic Style of Leadership – Why it is Still Effective

Is an autocratic style of leadership a thing of the past? In this article, we’ll explain why it’s still an important aspect of leadership and when to use it to be an effective leader.

Whe to use an autocratic style of leadership? Autocratic leadership is at its best when high-risk and important decisions need to be made quickly.

This can be seen in the military, the police force and ambulance and rescue services, where this leadership style is often the norm. It can also be used when change must be implemented quickly, with little time for discussion.

It is equally used to tell people with little skill and knowledge of a task, what to do, how to do it and when it should be done by.

An autocratic style of leadership is often seen in a bad light in the field of business leadership theories.

However, this is perhaps the oldest leadership style in practice. In spite of its many shortcomings, one or several aspects of the autocratic style of leadership are still adopted by leaders across all boundaries of geography and industry for the reasons above. We’ll explore these in greater detail.

But First, What are the Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership?

To understand the appeal and continued relevance of the autocratic style of leadership, we first need to take a look at the features that characterise it:

  • There is a clear decisional hierarchy, with decision making authority vested solely in the leader;
  • There are clear lines of reporting between team members and their leader;
  • There is usually a highly driven and visionary leader dictating the decision to their teams;
  • There is very little or no decision making inputs from subordinates;
  • The decision making is often completely based on the individual knowledge, experience and instincts of the leader;
  • communication normally flows from top down, which means little ideas are generated from those that are not in a leadership position.

In our exploration for answers, we’ve come across several conditions under which the leadership style gravitates towards authoritarianism.

Using Autocratic Style of Leadership Based on the Nature of the Work

There are a number professions and industries that require a more direct approach of managing.

Where Risk, Structure and Quick Decisions are Needed

This is applicable mainly for the armed forces, law and order and emergency services, such as fire and ambulance.

The armed forces around the world are among the largest employers. It is also a profession mired with uncertainty and danger. Any indecisiveness on the front line can have fatal consequences.

Decisions need to be clear, direct and fast. They need to be obeyed in order to maximise chances of success, as there is no time for discussing and working things out as a democratic team.

For this reason, any deliberation about strategy formulation happens only at the upper levels of the armed forces. Once the decision is made, it is passed down through a strongly established channel to the last line of soldiers, who take the orders and follow them with precision.

These situations have all the hallmarks of structure, respect, command and control and serve as the most efficient way of running critical, high risk and fast operations.

Where the Work is Complex and Precision is Extremely Important

In certain professions or situations, precision is of utmost importance. In some cases it makes the difference between life and death.

In others, a simple lapse can cause an entire line of products to be defective.

In yet other fields, the nature of the job may be too complex to allow free flow of ideas.

  1. High Risk Surgeries:

Here, all participating personnel must follow the instruction of the chief surgeon. Obviously, there are no empowering questions like, “where do you think I should start the cut?”

Or 

“Would you like a go?”

There’s no time or room for error, and like our armed forces, there must be clear command and control to ensure optimum and repeatable results. 

  1. Highly Technical and Process Specific Industries

Manufacturing processes such as petroleum refining, automobile manufacture and other such industries, require adherence to a stringent procedure without any scope of variation.

Whilst this may be seen as autocratic in nature, it’s not as straightforward as that, though.

These employees are expected to work to strict standards to ensure output is highly repeatable, when they are on their respective lines. And in processes that repeat very quickly, an operator often has to put their hand up to be relieved from the line, just to go to the toilet.

These are definite signs of autocratic leadership and command and control methods.

However, the most forward thinking businesses indeed opt for a more democratic style of leadership when employees are away from their respective production lines. 

They are given time offline and when they do, they come together to discuss lessons learned and ideas for improvement. They are often given freedom to implement small ideas to improve their own processes, too.

You could argue that these situations can form a hybrid of autocratic and democratic styles of leadership. The style changes to suit the situation.

The main point here is that you’ll often find the autocratic leadership style is used when output must be controlled and repeatable.

When you boil it down, it’s a similar requirement to the armed forces, and emergency personnel, too.

In an Industry Facing Constant Changes

When a business is in a state of constant flux, rapid decision making is necessary, in order to respond to such changes. Like on the front line in the military, in this state of uncertainty, there is no time to deliberate on possible courses of action.

For instance, a company trading in the stock market needs an autocratic leader to make decisions as they go and things shift.

This can also be seen in many technological start-ups in high competition areas. The founder is the fountainhead for all decision making powers and the employees are mainly tasked with their implementation.

Even Jeff Bezos’ Amazon, which operates in the highly competitive and fast changing e-commerce market, relies largely on the decisions made by Bezos himself.

Using Autocratic Style of Leadership Based on Situational Demands

It may be the case that a company’s leaders naturally deploy a democratic leadership style. Even here, there would be times when an autocratic leadership style would work more effectively.

During a Crisis

At times when an organisation is under severe stress, either due to poor financial performance or in an emergency, a democratic style should be switched to a directional and autocratic one, where commands are clear and people know exactly what to do and when.

For instance, when British Airways was on the verge of Bankruptcy, they needed strong resolve and determination to bring about change. Luckily, they found it in the form of their new CEO, Lord King, who restructured the entire business almost single-handedly.

If we consider the nation as a larger organisation, this situation applies during times of war. Several fundamental rights stand suspended and the instructions of the government, headed by the Prime Minister (or President, as the case may be) hold supreme.

Switching to an autocratic style should be swift, and may not be through huge strategic shifts. It could be the following:

  • To fix a problem that your customer has identified;
  • Changing a process quickly to ensure the customer gets an improved response straight away.

Working Against a Deadline

As in our example above, even for organisations known for following diplomatic leadership, there is often a temporary shift towards autocratic leadership when important deadlines are approaching and there are still critical things needed to get done.

At this stage, the leaders switch to issuing clear orders to their team members, along with equally clear deadlines to get actions completed by.

In some instances, employees can typically prefer to be hard driven by their leader in critical time bound or crisis situations. This helps them get clear on what they need to do.

When Working or Dealing with External Agencies

Many times as a leader, you face situations where you need to work with an external agency as part of a business deal or in the execution of a certain project. During such an ongoing deal or a project execution, it is not always possible to involve your entire team for deliberation to make a decision.

For instance, during a merger deal, the terms offered may not be beneficial to your organisation and you may be required to call it off.

In such cases, organisations often rely on the individual judgement of the person tasked with representing the organisation.

During Rapid Change in the Organisation

When change needs to happen fast, an autocratic leader is the right style to choose. Whilst being a transformational leader is critical for long term success and buy-in, the only exception is when something needs to happen now, not in a few months’ time.

In this situation, leaders must be assertive and tell rather than sell ideas.

This tell and sell approach can be seen in the situational leadership model, which states that a leader should change their style to suit the situation.

The situation arises from how skilled that person is and how willing they are to complete the task you set. We’ve written a guide on how to be a Situational leader, but here are some pointers of when to mix things up with the autocratic leadership style.

Using Autocratic Style of Leadership Based on the Nature of the Workforce

Leadership is all about extracting the best out of every employee. Hence, the leadership style also varies with the characteristics of the workforce. Autocratic leadership is more effective when dealing with the following types of employees.

People with Low Self Esteem and a Low Degree of Motivation

If left to set their goals and objectives for themselves, they would shy away from taking up responsibilities. They would tend to procrastinate and keep pushing back deadlines, hoping that someone will do the job in their place.

To deal with such employees and to get them to work efficiently, you need to set them specific responsibilities and deadlines. There should also be a clearly laid down procedure to be followed and an established set of rules that delineate rewards and punishments.

People with Lack of Experience and Sense of Direction

This can be seen in people new to the working world. They are typically full of energy and ready to take up new challenges.

So motivation is not an issue. However, they lack the experience that is generally gained with time.

They are also new to the corporate world and can lack a sense of composure and direction to contribute effectively on their own.

In order to guide them towards the objectives and harness their energy on a meaningful purpose, a certain degree of autocratic leadership is required,. This will be in the of clear directions, well spelt out objectives and recognition of achievements.

By giving them structure, and clear direction, they can then flourish.

Managing Blue Collar Workers

In this case, the employees are not in a position to meaningfully contribute to the decision making process due the deficiencies in their knowledge qualification, skill and or  talent.

In industries that use blue collar workers for unskilled work, there is a need for autocratic leadership to ensure that the leader gives clear directions which are followed to the word by the employees.

A good example is the construction sector, which mainly uses unskilled workers for the construction of sophisticated buildings. Hence, it is imperative that there are flawless designs and datasheets, along with operating procedures, so that the workers merely have to follow these instructions.

People Reluctant to take Responsibility

Observed typically in government organisations, there is a general disinclination among the employees to take responsibility for certain decisions. This could be due to a laid back attitude or due to fear of persecution by other leaders or other agencies, if things go wrong.

As a result, despite repeated deliberations, decisions get postponed. In such scenarios, it takes the autocratic leadership, in the form of an assertive head to make the bold decision and own it up by taking responsibility.

Words of Caution When Implementing an Autocratic Style of Leadership

In the above sections, we’ve identified the various situations in which an autocratic style of leadership can benefit and even allow your business and teams to flourish. However, inherently, people don’t like to be bossed around and told what to do in the long tem.  

As such, using the autocratic leadership style as your only method is often plagued with troubles.

Industry specific examples aside, there is some hard evidence which repeatedly show that employees respond better, and are more engaged and productive in a democratic leadership style. In this style, the leader clearly focuses on both results and people in equal measure. We’ve written a guide on this, to help support you further.

Here are some scientific bound studies that show that autocratic leadership should mostly be used in short term situations, which are often built around the need for quick decisions, quick change, critical and repeatable output and managing individuals who lack skill and or willingness.

This can be avoided by using the autocratic style of leadership only when you need it, and then resorting back to a more balance people and results based approach for the longer term.