What Is Autocratic Leadership?

A woman exhibiting autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style characterized by individual control over all decisions and little input from group members. Autocratic leaders typically make choices based on their ideas and judgments and rarely accept advice from followers. Autocratic leadership involves absolute, authoritarian control over a group.

Like other leadership styles, the autocratic style has both some benefits and some weaknesses.

When and where the authoritarian style is most useful can depend upon factors such as the situation, the type of task the group is working on, and characteristics of the team members.

If you tend to utilize this type of leadership with group, learning more about your style and the situations in which this style is the most effective can be helpful.

Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership

Some of the primary characteristics of autocratic leadership include:

  • Little or no input from group members
  • Leaders make almost all of the decisions
  • Group leaders dictate all the work methods and processes
  • Group members are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks
  • Work tends to be highly structured and very rigid
  • Creativity and out-of-the box thinking tend to be discouraged
  • Rules are important and tend to be clearly outlined and communicated

Benefits of Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership can be beneficial in some instances, such as when decisions need to be made quickly without consulting with a large group of people.

Some projects require strong leadership to get things accomplished quickly and efficiently. When the leader is the most knowledgeable person in the group, the autocratic style can lead to fast and effective decisions.

When does autocratic leadership work best?

It can be effective in small groups where leadership is lacking.

Have you ever worked with a group of students or co-workers on a project that got derailed by poor organization, a lack of leadership and an inability to set deadlines? If so, the chances are that your grade or job performance suffered as a result. In such situations, a strong leader who utilizes an autocratic style can take charge of the group, assign tasks to different members, and establish solid deadlines for projects to be finished.

These types of group projects tend to work better when one person is either assigned the role of leader or simply takes on the job on their own. By setting clear roles, assigning tasks, and establishing deadlines, the group is more likely to finish the project on time and with everyone providing equal contributions.

In situations that are particularly stressful, such as during military conflicts, group members may prefer an autocratic style. This allows members of the group to focus on performing specific tasks without worrying about making complex decisions. This also allows group members to become highly skilled at performing certain duties, which is ultimately beneficial to the success of the entire group.

Manufacturing and construction work can also benefit from the autocratic style.

In these situations, it is essential that each person have a clearly assigned task, a deadline, and rules to follow. Autocratic leaders tend to do well in these settings because they ensure that projects are finished on time and that workers follow safety rules to prevent accidents and injuries.

Downsides of Autocratic Leadership

While autocratic leadership can be beneficial at times, there are also many instances where this leadership style can be problematic. People who abuse an autocratic leadership style are often viewed as bossy, controlling, and dictatorial. This can sometimes result in resentment among group members.

Because autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting the group, people in the group may dislike that they are unable to contribute ideas. Researchers have also found that autocratic leadership often results in a lack of creative solutions to problems, which can ultimately hurt the group from performing.

Autocratic leaders tend to overlook the knowledge and expertise that group members might bring to the situation. Failing to consult with other team members in such situations hurts the overall success of the group.

Autocratic leadership can also impair the morale of the group in some cases. People tend to feel happier and perform better when they feel like they are making contributions to the future of the group. Since autocratic leaders typically do not allow input from team members, followers start to feel dissatisfied and stifled.

How Can Autocratic Leaders Thrive?

The autocratic style can be beneficial in some settings, but also has its pitfalls and is not appropriate for ever setting and with every group. If this tends to be your dominant leadership style, there are things that you should consider whenever you are in a leadership role.

  • Listen to team members. You might not change your mind or implement their advice, but subordinates need to feel that they can express their concerns. Autocratic leaders can sometimes make team members feel ignored or even rejected, so listening to people with an open mind can help them feel like they are making an important contribution to the group's mission.
  • Establish clear rules. In order to expect team members to follow your rules, you need to first ensure that these guidelines are clearly established and that each person on your team is fully aware of them.
  • Provide the group with the knowledge and tools they need. Once your subordinates understand the rules, you need to be sure that they actually have the education and abilities to perform the tasks you set before them. If they need additional assistance, offer oversight and training to fill in this knowledge gap.
  • Be reliable. Inconsistent leaders can quickly lose the respect of their teams. Follow through and enforce the rules you have established.
  • Recognize success. Your team may quickly lose motivation if they are only criticized when they make mistakes but never rewarded for their successes.

A Word From Verywell

While autocratic leadership does have some potential pitfalls, leaders can learn to use elements of this style wisely. For example, an autocratic style can be used effectively in situations where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group or has access to information that other members of the group do not. Instead of wasting valuable time consulting with less knowledgeable team members, the expert leader can quickly make decisions that are in the best interest of the group.

Autocratic leadership is often most effective when it is used for specific situations. Balancing this style with other approaches including democratic or transformational styles can often lead to better group performance.

Sources:

Cragen, JF, Wright, DW, & Kasch, CR. Communication in Small Groups: Theory, Process, and Skills. Boston: Wadsworth; 2009.

Daft, RL. The Leadership Experience. Stamford, CT: Cengage Learning; 2015.

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