This article describes the Autocratic Leadership in a practical way. After reading you will understand the definition and basics of this powerful leadership tool.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
A ship without a captain is rudderless and will always sail off course. In terms of organisations, a leader is also important in determining the course to be plotted. Autocratic leadership is a style that ensures that organisations strive for nearly flawless results. The word ‘autocratic’ originates from the ancient Greek word ‘auto’, which means ‘self’ and ‘cratic’, which means ‘power’. As such, it’s clear that the autocratic leaders are known as self-directing and like to give commands to the people under their management.
Nevertheless, autocratic leadership is one of the least popular management styles and certainly not suitable for each organisation. In the autocratic leadership process, there’s one person who pulls all the strings and who determines all decisions on a strategic level. Employees in the departments under their control, must follow.
The autocratic leader has a lot of power and completely excludes any form of say and participation of employees. In the 70s of the previous century, the autocratic style became less popular compared to other current leadership theories. Under the influence of the Human Relations theory, people became the central factor and it became important to discover what their motivation is; what exactly makes people want to carry out their work? The word ‘labourers’ changed to ’employees’. Employees were given a voice in the company’s decisions. This isn’t present in autocratic leadership; participation of employees is simply unthinkable.
However, a distinction can be made between an exploiting and benevolent autocratic leadership style. In exploiting autocratic leadership, the leader determines what happens, without any contradiction from his employees and subordinates. After all, it must simply be done. In benevolent autocratic leadership, the leader still decides what should happen, but he explains his reasons to his subordinates in hindsight. Although there’s still no participation in the latter style, it’s a first step towards starting a dialogue with employees.
Throughout the years, autocratic leadership has been frequently criticised. There were several reasons for this. The autocratic management style mainly acquired fame due to military and political leaders, sports coaches and icons from the industrial period. Think of former American president Nixon, the rich founder of the eponymous Rockefeller concern and German dictator Adolf Hitler. It’s often associated with tyrants and dictators who use authoritarian means to lead subordinates.
Nevertheless, many historic autocratic leaders were innovators who unleashed revolutions in society or industry, for instance. They had the gift of combining progressive ideas, self-government and autocratic leadership. The rise of the Roman Empire under the leadership of Julius Caesar, the first mass production of cars under management of Henry Ford and the start of a network of roads in Europe by Napoleon are just a few important examples.
Regardless, autocratic leadership has a negative connotation and is often viewed as a kind of fall-back position of incapable managers who aren’t able to motivate and inspire their employees.
An autocratic leader is the sole ruler. He leads on the basis of tasks rather than employees. An autocratic leader often makes employees feel uncomfortable, as they have the need to be seen and heard. After employees have worked for an autocratic leader for years, however, it’s difficult for them to get used to a different leadership style. They will initially be suspicious of a participatory leader; they’ll be mistrustful and think that the new leader is testing their efforts and the execution of their activities.
The autocratic style is very useful in a number of cases. First, new starting, inexperienced employees require more instructions and less participation. Employees who must quickly and efficiently be trained for production processes in the fast food industry or conveyor belt activities also perform well under the autocratic leadership style. Autocratic leadership is also common in professions where decisions about life and death are made. The shorter lines and fast instructions prevent misunderstandings. In the healthcare industry, the police, fire brigade, aviation and the army, for instance, the autocratic style is a must and absolutely indispensable.
The role of the autocratic leader himself is essential. He assigns tasks himself, takes important decisions and demands that employees properly perform the assigned tasks. Organisation comes first and attention for employees comes second. An autocratic leader doesn’t look for the opinions or expertise of employees who report to him. He makes the decisions for the entire group, the team or the organisation. They work in a highly disciplined way, have lots of knowledge and are well-prepared.
It’s Your Turn
What do you think? Which aspects of an autocratic leader are useful in the modern world? Do you recognize the practical explanation or do you have more additions?
Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.
- De Hoogh, A. H., Greer, L. L., & Den Hartog, D. N. (2015). Diabolical dictators or capable commanders? An investigation of the differential effects of autocratic leadership on team performance. The Leadership Quarterly, 26(5), 687-701.
- Schoel, C., Bluemke, M., Mueller, P., & Stahlberg, D. (2011). When autocratic leaders become an option—Uncertainty and self-esteem predict implicit leadership preferences. Journal of personality and social psychology, 101(3), 521.
- Van de Vliert, E. (2006). Autocratic leadership around the globe: Do climate and wealth drive leadership culture?. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37(1), 42-59.
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