Autocratic Leadership Guide: Definition, Qualities, Pros & Cons, Examples
“If an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.’” – Alfred Hitchcock
Autocratic leadership tends to create a negative image of leadership to most people. Yet, while the leadership style is not generally favored in discussion and analysis, it is still a prevalent leadership style in modern corporate culture. But are the associations with control and power accurate, or do they represent a misleading image of this leadership theory?
In this guide, we’ll examine autocratic leadership and what it has meant in the past. We’ll study the contexts in which it was born and look at how it is shaping the modern world. We’ll examine the core characteristic of the leadership style and provide you with the traits of an autocratic leader. We’ll also study the strengths and weaknesses of this style of leadership. Finally, we’ll explore a few examples of autocratic leadership to help you get a concrete idea of the benefits and failings of the style.
UNDERSTANDING AUTOCRATIC LEADERSHIP
When it comes to leadership styles, autocratic leadership is among the most tried and tested examples of leadership. As the section will highlight, human history is full of autocratic leadership examples, but they are also available in the modern world. Both the past and the present have attempted to identify the essence of what autocratic leadership means.
The history of autocratic leadership
If you take a narrow look of the autocratic model, you can find examples of its use throughout history. Autocratic, or authoritarian, leadership has been utilized in tribes and empires throughout time and in different parts of the world.
To understand autocratic leadership and its place in history, it’s beneficial to examine the origins of the word autocracy. The word has Greek roots, with the word reflecting independent and self-sustaining power. The word auto means self and cratic means rule. To lead autocratically, the Greeks thought a person must lead with self-confidence. The Greeks used the term autocrates to refer to emperors, whether or not the person necessarily held such power.
The historical examples of autocratic leaders hold the key to understanding the type of leadership this model suggests. In the Roman Empire, the emperors were considered autocratic leaders; they held the power, controlled the strings to the system and made decisions without necessarily consulting with the public. Nonetheless, it’s important to note, the leaders didn’t rule without considering the wellbeing of his subjects. In Ancient Greece, the autocratic leaders tried to keep the masses happy. One ruler called Pisistratus used the tactic of taking land away from the wealthy and providing it for the peasants.
What the above shows is the important distinction between autocratic leadership and totalitarian dictatorships. While autocratic leadership has historically meant concentrated power, the autocratic leader still requires a surrounding power structure around them in order to operate. For example, autocracies in history have tumbled down rapidly, once the subjects have gathered enough support in changing the system.
Generally, the basic premise throughout history has shown autocratic leadership relies on the non-existence of input from the subordinates in terms of making decisions. The leader is the one in charge of the final call, although he or she might have heard outside opinions from expert and even considered what the subordinates might want. But the final power is in the hands of the leader.
If you examine the historical use of autocratic leadership, you can see it displayed in situations where control is vital to the survival of the status quo and decision-making has had to be swift. It’s therefore no wonder tribal leaders resorted to autocratic leadership, as it helped ensure the tribe’s success against other competing tribes.
Furthermore, dangerous conditions, such as war and conflict, have required autocratic leadership. But aside of the military and political power using autocratic style, sports has also historically leaned towards the style.
The modern context of autocratic leadership
Unlike certain other leadership theories, autocratic leadership has no defining book or theorist behind the model. It’s more of an organic leadership style, which has developed over time. The first time it was identified as a clear leadership style was during the 1930s, when a group of researchers published the first major study in leadership styles.
Kurt Lewin, R. Lippit, and R. K. White published an essay Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates in the Journal of Psychology in 1939 outlining different leadership styles, among them autocratic or authoritarian style. According to Lewin and his colleagues, an autocratic leader would make decisions without consulting others and according to their research, this would create discontent within the group. Therefore, the study concluded the leadership style is suited for situations where input is not needed, for the decision wouldn’t change from the input. In short, if the outcome is the same, there’s no need to spend time discussion other options.
Undoubtedly the democratic movements of the 18th and 19th centuries led to increasing participation of people in political decision-making in everyday life. This resulted in autocratic leadership being viewed rather more negatively and it received criticism in terms of keeping people or subordinates away from power.
Nonetheless, it didn’t remove the autocratic leadership from the political, military, sports or business world. Even in the modern world, certain situations can benefit from the particular leadership style and there are examples in the business world where autocratic leadership is still used and could be used.
Autocratic leadership is often used in three situations in the modern context:
- The leadership style suits situations that require fast and immediate decision-making. In the modern context and example would be a business that is performing badly and its performance requires an immediate change in order for the business to survive.
- The leadership style fits situations when the inability to make decisions or to apply a clear process of procedure might create more problems and even lead people in danger. The most obvious examples of this are the military, the police and the fire services, but it can also benefit situations such as health care or manufacturing.
- The leadership style can be used in situations where the group is full of inexperienced people and/or the motivation levels of the group are extremely poor. For example, if a business hires a lot of inexperienced staff at once, an autocratic model can help start the process with speed and ensure the staff is guided through the process.
Ultimately, part of autocratic leadership style’s decline in favorability has been down to failings by certain autocratic leaders. For example, the US President Richard Nixon is often touted as an example of autocratic leader. But the backdoor deals, showcased by the New York Times and The Washington Post’s Pentagon Papers and Watergate expose, led to Nixon’s resignation and an overall sense of the failings of the autocratic style.
Simultaneously, new leadership theories were coming out and these tended to focus more on personal development, wellbeing and participatory style of leading. You can see a short comparison between a few different leadership models in terms of authority in the below image.
THE CORE CHARACTERISTICS OF AUTOCRATIC LEADERSHIP
Before we examine the core characteristics of autocratic leadership in terms of the four key characteristics of the theory and the way autocratic leadership can manifest, it’s auspicious to consider the theoretical basis of the leadership style: Douglas McGregor’s Theory X.
Autocratic leadership style closely rests on the assumptions made in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X. The theory explains why people behave the way they do and if they are acting in a particular way, what kind of leadership style would be beneficial for them.
The social psychologist studied human motivation and management in the 1960s and developed two distinct theories: Theory X and Theory Y. According to McGregor’s findings, leaders base their management style in the assumptions and beliefs of how they think the team can be motivated. If the leader assumes the team is not motivated and doesn’t enjoy the work, then the leader will adopt an authoritarian or autocratic style.
The below image outlines the assumptions, both theories make about the subordinates and their motivation:
While McGregor criticized the Theory X type of management style, the psychologist also recognized that these types of subordinates exists and that certain environments would require an autocratic leadership style to succeed. For example, he suggested the style would work well in environments that require large-scale production or have a number of unskilled workers in place. The theory is, therefore, closely fitting with the autocratic leadership style and its suitability in specific environments and situations.
If workers are unmotivated, unskilled and unsure about the procedure, the leader must take control over decision-making and be in charge of supervising the subordinates in order to achieve specific goals.
The four key characteristics
The quote by Alfred Hitchcock at the start of this guide is a rather good example of what is the essence of autocratic leadership. It shows that the leader (the director) is in charge of deciding the procedures and rules, with the employee (actor) should just follow the orders and be contempt with the benefits they receive, often in terms of salary.
In essence, the above example and therefore, the autocratic leadership is based on four key characteristics, which guide the leadership style. The four are:
- Limited or no input from the subordinates.
- The leader makes all the decisions.
- The leader is in charge of the rules, methods and processes the team uses to reach objectives.
- The group’s involvement in important tasks and decisions remains small or non-existent.
Let’s examine these characteristics in action to get a better idea of what they mean and perhaps more crucially, what they aren’t implying.
First, the lack of input in terms of decision-making means the leader won’t necessarily consult with his or her subordinates when decisions are made, even if they involve the team and its members. The leader will consider the different options and make the decisions based on his or her own understanding and judgment. For example, in a business environment, a decision to change working hours would be made by the leader instead of the group deciding what they want.
It’s essential to understand this doesn’t necessarily mean the leader wouldn’t ask for input or consider the group’s wellbeing when making the decisions. As we’ll explain in the following section, consideration of the team is important, but the leader ultimately will be in charge of coming to a conclusion.
Second, autocratic leadership gives the leader an enormous amount of power in deciding how the team operates, but this also means increasing responsibility and accountability. The leader will need to create the system, with all the rules and procedures, in which the team uses to operate and reach goals. If something is not working, the blame can easily fall on the shoulders of the leader and therefore, the leader must carefully implement his or her vision.
Since the leader is in charge of the procedural rules and methods, autocratic leadership tends to come with increased scrutiny. Subordinates will be closely monitored by the leader, which puts pressure on them and makes the leader extremely involved in the day-to-day activities.
But as the Theory X assumptions showed, autocratic leadership requires a strong reward structure implemented in the operational process. Subordinates aren’t just expected to work without a reward in the autocratic model, i.e. it shouldn’t be confused with a slave mentality. While the system is rather rigid, it does require a balance of benefits to guarantee workers are motivated. In autocratic leadership, these benefits are more likely to be monetary or other similar advantages rather than the ability to make decisions or participate in the leadership.
Learn about when to use a authoritarian leadership style versus a transformational leadership style.
Three manifestations of autocratic leadership
Autocratic leadership can manifest in different ways. It is therefore not completely rigid and different situations can influence how the organization and the leader implement the style. The three manifestations are:
- Directing autocratic leadership
- Permissive autocratic leadership
- Paternalistic autocratic leadership
These three, while still showcasing the core characteristics of autocratic style, tend to use slightly different ways of approaching the flexibility within the decision-making process.
The different varieties are explained in the following chart:
The most common and the most rigid form of the basic autocratic leadership style.
Subordinates are closely monitored and the leader is unlikely to consult subordinates in terms of decisions.
A slightly more open autocratic leadership.
While the leader is in charge of making the final decision, subordinates enjoy some flexibility in deciding themselves how to perform tasks.
|Uses the core characteristics of autocratic leadership, but balances them with concern over the wellbeing and happiness of the subordinates.|
In terms of examples from the real world, the directing autocratic leadership is evident in environments such as the military. These situations require a relatively rigid leadership style in which the subordinates are monitored to ensure no mistakes are made at any point of completing the tasks.
On the other hand, permissive autocratic leadership can benefit industries such as film. While the director might be the person who makes the final decisions, actors can often use their own intuitiveness and creativity in terms of creating the kind of scenes the director wants.
Finally, the paternalistic autocratic leadership can benefit environment such as the operating theatre. The surgeon must balance the wellbeing of the subordinates, because if people are not feeling stable or up to the challenge, they can risk the whole operation to go wrong. In this kind of autocratic style, the decisions are made with operational goals, as well as the emotional wellbeing of the people performing the tasks, in mind.
THE QUALITIES OF AN AUTOCRATIC LEADER
As the above section highlighted, autocratic leadership isn’t an easy style to lead. It requires a number of special skills and qualities of the leader. Autocratic leaders shouldn’t be considered the ones who shout the loudest, as this is simply bad leadership. Instead, the leadership style can be among the hardest to master.
Required qualities and skills autocratic leaders need
An autocratic leader requires quite a few qualities to survive the difficulties the leadership style can bring about. Below is a set of must-have characteristics and skills that can make the style easier to master.
As autocratic leaders are in charge of the decision-making and the overall operational processes of the organization or the team, they must have high levels of expertise. The leader must have knowledge of the industry and the organization to ensure he or she is taking it in the right direction.
Expertise will not only guarantee the autocratic leader achieves the right results, but also helps gain support and trust with the subordinates. If the subordinates feel they are led by a talented and skilled individual, they will feel more relaxed and motivated to follow. It’s not as common to start questioning an individual with authority, if you feel they are highly experienced and knowledgeable in the field.
Expertise can be gained in a number of ways, not least, by experience. A leader must have a good grasp of different levels of the organization and to understand how different parts operate. Therefore, experiencing these different roles and understanding what they entail will help with expertise and knowledge. While autocratic leaders are in charge of the decisions, listening to other opinions or reading more about the topics in question will broaden your understanding and make it easier to make those crucial decisions.
Related to expertise is the autocratic leaders’ thirst for perfection and results. An autocratic leader must be determined and driven. Since the accountability relies on their shoulders, they must be ready for challenges and to overcome these with passion and precision.
Being self-driven is not something that can necessarily be taught. Most successful leaders would argue the will to succeed has been burning since childhood. But there are certain things that can boost determination.
First, you definitely want to find an area where your expertise blossoms and which you are passionate about. If you are passionate, you almost automatically become more focused on achieving things – whether or not you do so with success or fame in mind.
Second, you can develop your confidence. If you trust your strengths will guide you through problems and you are confident in being stuck with difficult things, you will be more driven to get things done. If you are scared of taking responsibility, you are unlikely to feel driven by challenges.
Autocratic leaders are in charge of everything and this burden of accountability means the leader must be ready to take on this responsibility and carry it. The weight of the decisions is not easy for the leader.
Responsible leaders are leaders who can be trusted because they are accountable for their actions and decisions. It is another way an autocratic leader can gain trust and respect from the subordinates and can help set a motivational example for the rest of the team.
A leader can showcase responsible behavior simply by sticking to his or her promises. If you’ve made a pledge to do something, then you should do it. Responsible behavior also requires consistency, just like an autocratic leadership. Autocratic leadership doesn’t allow for whimsical changes, but carefully considered and well-analyzed actions. Finally, as a leader, you must be accountable and avoid passing the blame to others. Keep in mind the quote, made famous by US President Harry S. Truman, “The buck stops here”. A leader cannot keep passing the responsibility on others, as they are ultimately in charge of the decisions.
As mentioned above, another key quality of an autocratic leader is consistency. Since the leadership style can be rather difficult in terms of motivating the subordinates, an inconsistent approach to leadership could cause more confusion and resistance within the team. By ensuring the line, rules, and procedures stay the same, the leader can guarantee a more secure and calm work environment.
If you need to enforce punishments, or indeed rewards, always do so with a consistent approach. Different employees can’t be treated differently because this leads to resentment and inequality within the group.
In his blog post on consistency, James Clear advices people to not only focus on being consistent, but prepare for failure as well. An autocratic leader will make mistakes. But as Clear writes,
“Planning to fail doesn’t mean that you expect to fail, but rather than you know what you will do and how you will get back on track when things don’t work out”.
Take note of the below five steps of staying consistent, provided by Maria Forleo. These can help you gain more consistency in your leadership efforts and thus improve the way you are leading the troops.
Finally, a crucial character of an autocratic leader is clarity, which is closely linked with the above idea of consistency. Although the autocratic leader makes the decisions, it doesn’t mean things must be done in secrecy. The ability to clearly explain the rules, the tasks and the processes will ensure subordinates are able to perform what is required of them to the highest standards. Clarity ensures consistency in the leader’s approach and can, therefore, help with workplace motivation.
According to Brian Tracy, recognized sales training and personal success coach, clarity accounts for 80% of success. Whether or not the subordinates have power in making-decisions, understanding the vision, and the approach will make it easier for them to succeed. If they are explained what to do and how, and if they are aware of the rules and what happens if they break them, they can get on with the job without hesitation and confusion.
As a leader, you need to outline the different aspects of work requirements that affect the person’s ability to do the job. Allow subordinates to ask questions and communicate the answers to them clearly when they do so.
How to leverage autocratic leadership style
In addition to the above leadership characteristics, an autocratic leader can leverage this demanding and often-difficult leadership style in three key steps.
Step one: Show respect towards the team
Autocratic leadership is a rigid form of leadership in terms of rules and procedures; there isn’t often as much flexibility available as in other leadership models. But this shouldn’t make the leader inflexible.
While you might not allow subordinates to make the decisions or choose how they perform tasks, you want to ensure the rules are fair for everyone. Acknowledging everyone’s input, even though they are not in charge, is important in terms of creating a more motivating work environment.
The best teams are built on respect and respect doesn’t necessarily mean everyone gets to make decisions. By showing to your subordinates that you value their work and the effort, you show them respect.
Step two: Create an environment of communication and explanation
Clarity is a characteristic that requires good communication skills. You need to communicate with the employees openly and be willing to explain to them situations they might feel unsure about. “Just because I say so” is not a statement autocratic leaders should use, although it doesn’t mean you need to go around justifying every single decision either.
When subordinates enter an autocratic leadership environment, they understand their own input to decisions is limited and that they don’t have the same flexibility in deciding how they perform things. But by explaining and communicating the rules that are in place, you make the environment clearer and supportive. As explained above, when the rules are clear, when the employees feel respected, and the communication lines are open, the employee is less likely to rebel and feel demoralized.
One important aspect of communication is regarding changes in the organization or the operational procedures. As an autocratic leader, you might want to consider communicating about changes before they take place. This ensures subordinates have time to let the changes sink in, even though they know they might not be able to prevent them from happening. It gives them more time to adjust and the change won’t feel as frightening or sudden once it happens.
Step three: Allow different opinions
Finally, you should allow different opinions to flourish within the organization. Autocratic leadership doesn’t require an environment where people can’t express themselves, voice out concerns or ask questions. Whilst the leader doesn’t have to listen to the opinions and suggestions or implement changes subordinates call for, allowing employees to voice them adds a sense of freedom to the workplace.
Do create a regular environment where subordinates can talk and don’t reject a request for feedback outright. Whenever you are implementing a new process or introducing a new task, have a meeting where subordinates are able to talk about the topic. Try answering their concerns, but do make it clear the decision to implement them is in your hands.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF AUTOCRATIC LEADERSHIP
As the above has shown, autocratic leadership can have slight variations in terms of how it manifests within an organization and even history has shown there to be different ways to implement the style. Autocratic leadership can therefore be a tricky leadership style and it does come with its own pros and cons.
Advantages of autocratic leadership
One of the strengths of autocratic leadership comes from the structure of the decision-making process which guarantees decisions are made quickly. As the leader alone is in charge of the decisions, the implementation of them can be swift. For organizations, this can mean enhanced efficiency and speed. You don’t need to wait for everyone to form an opinion and then to have a negotiation on what the next steps would be. Instead, the autocratic leader will use his or her expertise and judgment to make the decision.
Autocratic leadership is therefore beneficial to industries and organizations that require quick thinking, such as healthcare. But it can further benefit smaller groups that are yet to properly organized like business start-ups. Actions often must be taken quickly and creating a vision for the business can be easier when someone is in charge of the decisions, instead of spending days or months to reach a consensus. Autocratic leadership can allow the organization to streamline its operations and make long-term survival a more viable option, especially in turbulent times.
This quick thinking and decision-making process can benefit stressful or highly impactful situations as well. Therefore, it isn’t any wonder the military, the police and other first response institutions tend to favor some sort of autocratic leadership model. But during high stress times, the leadership style can provide relief for other industries and organizations as well. For instance, a business might be in the middle of a big merger and subordinates can continue focusing on their day-to-day tasks easily under a leadership model where they don’t need to worry themselves over the decisions or changes.
Another operational advantage of autocratic leadership is the clarity it brings to group behavior. A solid autocratic system creates clearly defined guidelines and rules, with the decisions being in the hands of the leader. This ensures the subordinates can just focus on the tasks they are provided with. Highly skilled individuals can put their energy in performing the duties they are most suited for without having to spend time in other less meaningful tasks and decisions. Subordinates ‘know their place’ and won’t need to worry about much.
In situations where the leader is the most knowledgeable and has far more experience than the subordinates, consulting them for every decision would be wasteful. It wouldn’t just be about time spent on coming to a conclusion, but the leader would have to spend time educating the team about the different aspects of the decision. Furthermore, in industries where security and secrecy are paramount, certain information might not even be available to subordinates and this would not lead to efficient or correct decision-making.
This is further enhanced by scrutiny of the individuals in certain situations, such as when the workforce is low skilled. For example, it can make new workers feel less worried about making mistakes, as they know guidance and supervision will ensure they are doing a good job.
Disadvantages of autocratic leadership
Yet, there are drawbacks to autocratic leadership style. During his experiments, Lewin also noted the autocratic style to be demoralizing at times. In his experiments, which asked a team to perform tasks under specific leadership models, the group under an autocratic leadership showed enhanced productivity, yet were joyless and showcased high levels of dependence and frustration.
Since the subordinates have no say in decision-making, it can cause resentment within the group. If the person feels detached from the process, the willingness to perform well can deteriorate. Even if the employee is able to voice opinions, but these opinions are never listened to, the morale for showing up to work can decrease.
As mentioned in the Lewin study, autocratic leadership can also have the negative impact of creating a dependency culture within an organization. People can get used to not having to make decisions, which leads to them starting to avoid decision-making, even when it might be necessary. The rigid environment can lead to a culture where subordinates do what they are told – nothing more, nothing less. In certain organizations, this can lead to loss of innovation and eventually create problems in terms of leadership succession. If people’s abilities are not tested, they might shy away or fail in positions of power later on.
Dependency culture removes accountability and can de-motivate the person. This can mean there’s no desire to improve one’s skillset and train further in the field, providing benefits to the organization. On the other hand, the employees with the passion and desire to be heard and to highlight their talent will generally move away from the autocratic organization. As McGregor’s Theory Y explained, employees can be motivated in different ways. In fact, the theory assumes employees actively look for more responsibility and exercise self-control in achieving goals. In terms of autocratic leadership, this sort of thinking doesn’t sit well within the model.
Autocratic leadership can, therefore, lead to a less creative and innovative environment. In an autocratic environment, there’s no room for competing ideas and decisions are generally not challenged. While opinions might be listened to, the leader might not use them. Since the decision-making relies on his or her shoulders, it’s easy to fall for the confirmation bias and simply follow the line already favored by the leader. This can mean interesting or even expert information is overlooked, which can mean the organization doesn’t perform to the highest of standards.
Furthermore, autocratic leadership relies heavily on the competence of the leader. If the leader is knowledgeable and effective, then the organization will benefit. But it the leader is not as competent, the organization might suffer. In the words of the old saying, “you shouldn’t put all your eggs in one basket’. Relying on the leader alone for the correct decisions can be a dangerous path.
For the person in charge, the amount of power available through the leadership style can present difficult dilemmas of balance. The saying, “drunk with power” has its basis in reality. If you are the one holding the strings, it’s possible to slip towards controlling and bossy behavior. Therefore, an autocratic leader has to be able to critically evaluate his or her own style at times.
Finally, all of the above can mean diversity within the workplace reduces, as people who are conformist and fit the leader’s rules and leadership style are the ones that are attracted to the organization and willing to stay. Several studies have shown, diversity is an important part of creating a successful work environment and the lack of diversity can lead to lower levels of innovation.
EXAMPLES OF FAMOUS AUTOCRATIC LEADERS
Understanding the advantages and disadvantages of the autocratic leadership style is easier when you examine examples of autocratic leaders and companies. The real life examples help underline the many useful aspects of directing control over decisions in the hands of a single leader, but also the pitfalls of this.
While it’s easy to point out the historic examples of autocratic leaders, such as Julius Caesar or Joseph Stalin, these examples don’t always paint a fair and balanced view of what the style of leadership can look like, especially in the modern world. In fact, many autocratic leaders have driven change and innovation in their respective industries, and not just been power-hungry and monstrous rulers. Henry Ford is a popular example of an autocratic leader, who changed society through his automobile development.
Below are a few recent examples of autocratic leaders and organizations.
As mentioned in the first section, autocratic leadership is a style often associated with the world of sports. It’s no wonder then to find a number of examples from sport coaches who used an autocratic style to reach the top. The US American football coach Vince Lombardi is a good example of an autocratic coach. He aimed for perfection and the pursuit of excellence, and emphasized the autocratic leadership values of discipline, respect and organization throughout his career.
Lombardi was a coach who knew it takes discipline to win the National Football League (NFL) and he favored a specific system with his team. He wanted to implement strict rules and the team to follow on what he tells them to and victory would be within reach. In fact, his dedication to expertise and discipline made him win the six NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.
You can learn more about the leadership of Vince Lombardi and what it takes to be a winner by watching the below video:
A more recent example and especially in terms of the business world is Martha Stewart. She’s a businesswoman who truly built her success and business empire, which was failing at one point, with an attention to detail.
For good and for bad, Stewart is told to scrutinize her employees with a magnifying glass and make sure everything is done according to her rules. She demands perfection from her subordinates, but the intense demands have helped create a successful enterprise in what is a competitive environment.
Stewart has said, “I can be fair and decisive, and encouraging as well as demanding”. The statement highlights well the balance autocratic leadership has to strike in order to succeed. As the above has hopefully shown, autocratic leadership shouldn’t equate to tyranny in the workplace.
Blue Cross of California / Leonard D. Schaeffer
There have also been examples of organizations that implemented autocratic style at one point, with the autocratic leader often creating the environment. In some instances, the implementation of the style has been driven by an organizational need. This was the case in terms of Blue Cross of California.
The company was in huge problems in 1986, performing the worst in the US of all the Blue Cross companies. Leonard D. Schaeffer came in with the simple goal: to turn things around.
Schaeffer considered himself an autocratic leader and used the method during the early days in the company. In Harvard Business Review article, The Leadership Journey, he wrote about his approach:
“When a business needs to change relatively quickly, it’s much more important to just make a decision and get people moving than it is to take the time to conduct a thorough analysis and attempt to influence others to come around to your way of thinking. Therefore, I would define the autocratic leader not as someone who bullies others needlessly but as the managerial equivalent of an emergency room surgeon, forced to do whatever it takes to save a patient’s life.”
The New York Times / Howell Raines
Another organizational example is The New York Times under the Executive Editor, Howell Raines. Rained worked in his role from 2001 and 2003, with his leadership style being described as autocratic.
In a rather infamous way, Raines’ leadership is best showcased through his “flooding the zone” policy, which meant the paper’s resources were used solely on the stories he deemed important to cover. Nonetheless, his leadership was effective in a highly demanding industry, where expertise can play a huge role in success. During Raines’ leadership, The New York Times won a record-breaking seven Pulitzer Prices in a single year.
On the flip side, the staff moral lowered, as journalists saw their stories scrapped singlehandedly by Raines’ decisions. He exemplified the idea outlined by McGregor’s Theory X that employees are “lazy” and “lethargic”. Eventually, Raines’ autocratic leadership style only lasted for 21 months, after which he was fired.
Autocratic leadership is a leadership style that doesn’t have a good reputation in today’s democratic and participatory work environment. The idea that one person would be in charge of the decisions and procedures can seem uncomfortable to many.
But autocratic leadership shouldn’t be equated with tyranny. The autocratic leader of today is a passionate and driven individual, who wants the organization to succeed. Therefore, this requires understanding of what subordinates might want and autocratic culture doesn’t mean communication needs to be one-way. It simply places the final word for the leader’s corner.
As we’ve seen above, autocratic leadership still has its benefits and therefore a place in today’s world. It can enhance decision-making and make the operational aspects of a business run smoother. A knowledgeable autocratic leader can provide innovative ideas to an organization and a team, creating a whole set of new ways to succeed – history has proven this is the case.
Nonetheless, the leadership style also requires a great deal from the leader. Carrying the weight of an organization on your shoulders is not easy and the expertise required to make right decisions means the leader must be constantly willing and prepared to learn. Furthermore, being in charge of the decisions and scrutinizing subordinates closely can create a demoralizing environment. Different opinions, flexibility in procedures and the ability to think on your feet can be strengths for a company. In a tightly controlled environment, where power is concentrated, the autocratic model can also fail to inspire or change.
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