The autocratic leadership style is when all decisions are made by a single individual. That individual has complete authority over all aspects of the organization.
The autocratic leader rarely seeks the opinion of those around them and will often insulate themselves with people they know will agree with their directives.
Sometimes, decisions must be made quickly and decisively to achieve success. Having too many people sharing their opinions can lead to long delays in decision-making that may be severely detrimental. Therefore, someone needs to be in place to provide immediate direction.
An autocratic leader may be necessary in times of war, when a company is in its earliest stages of development, or when most members of a project team have very little experience or know-how.
Definition of Autocratic Leadership
Decisions from autocratic leaders are often based on their own beliefs, moral values, or in some cases, political ideology.
Autocratic leaders can be ego-driven, meaning that decisions are often based on how it affects their image, sense of pride, or status in the company. Those that question their authority can be terminated from the company, or in some cases involving the political arena, that termination may be literal.
Some of the most successful people in life are autocratic. They rule with an iron fist, have exceptionally high expectations for those they employ, and will show very little patience and understanding for those that do not perform according to standards. They also believe they have inherent traits that make them good leaders (which is known as the trait theory of leadership).
Real-Life Autocratic Leadership Examples
- Cult Leaders – Famous for having a ‘my way or the highway’ mentality.
- Martha Stewart – Despite her soft exterior, Martha Stewart was known for being highly demanding of her staff behind the scenes.
- Ridley Scott – Known for his perfectionism, this director was very hard to work with on the set because he was such a tough leader.
- Napoleon Bonaparte – Like many wartime leaders, Napoleon became an increasingly detached autocrat who led from the top.
- Queen Elizabeth I – Known as a tough ruler of England, the Queen also demonstrated great care for her people.
- Vladimir Putin – His iron grip on Russia has placed him in a position where what he says, goes!
- Elon Musk – Musk is famous for leading with an iron fist and even publicly threatening to fire employees who step out of line.
- Attila the Hun – The Germanic wartime leader tried to conquer the world and appeared to have no limits on his power. After his death, the Hun dynasty collapsed as there was such a huge leadership vacuum.
- Genghis Khan – The founder of the Mongol empire, Khan united man nomadic tribes by forcing them to submit to his will, a key trait of an autocratic leader.
- King Henry III – King Henry was just nine years old when he assumed power, and he grew up in a climate where the King’s word is everything.
- The Kim Dynasty – In North Korea, the leader is the ultimate dictator. No one can interfere or stop him from doing what he wants.
- Steve Jobs – The head of Apple was known for being highly controlling of his organization and a hige micromanager. He was even kicked out of the company for a while due to his difficult autocratic style.
Autocratic Leadership Characteristics
1. Strict Manager
Autocratic leaders are known as being extremely strict. They set high standards and will enforce them with an iron fist. Martha Stewart is a great example.
Martha Stewart turned a cooking show into a billion-dollar empire. Her public persona is of a wholesome homemaker that loves to cook and show others how to prepare delicious meals for their families. She comes across as a warm and gentle soul that is friendly and kindhearted.
However, her reputation in the business world and the organizations she runs is quite different. She is well-known for her strict management style and her meticulous demands for perfection from her staff. She has oversight and control over every aspect of her empire and no decision is made without her imput.
This is a style that has served her well over many decades. At one time she was one of the most influential women in the world and her financial success is testament to her abilities.
2. Commanding Speakers
Autocratic leaders are more inclined to speak rather than listen. If they’re talking in a meeting, everyone is silent because the leader’s wrath is often feared.
The best place to identify a person’s leadership style is at a meeting. The way the leader speaks, their tone of voice, the degree or instruction provided, and their whole demeanor can let you see what kind of leadership philosophy they subscribe to.
In the case of the autocratic leader, the meeting will primarily consist of the leader speaking most, if not all of the time. Their statements will be very directive and involve a level of specificity that is quite detailed.
Their tone and demeanor will exude a great deal of confidence and very little time will be spent on group discussion.
Autocratic leaders are often perfectionists. They know exactly what they want and they insist that their team realizes that vision in their minds. The British Director Ridley Scott is a great example.
Ridley Scott’s movies are well-known for their visual style and emotional impact. Some of his most famous works include: Blade Runner, Gladiator, Thelma and Louise and Black Hawk Down.
His success is a result of many factors of course: great actors, skilled production crews, and talented writers. But his style on set is very directive. He is well-known for expecting perfection from all those working on his films and is quite strict on following instructions.
He is often quoted as saying: “I think, at the end of the day, filmmaking is a team, but eventually there’s got to be a captain.”
4. Strict Control over Choosing their Team
Because the autocratic leader likes to maintain control at all times, they will be heavily involved in hiring. One of their primary goals is to stay in power, so they will make sure that people coming into the organization will not present a threat to that objective.
They are highly skilled at reading people and can quickly determine if an applicant is someone that will challenge their authority or be someone that will fall-in-line. By controlling who gets hired and who doesn’t, they are extending their influence across the organization.
Therefore, if at all practical, they will insist on seeing the resume of each applicant before any are selected for an interview. They may also insist on being present at the interview or at the very least having a separate interview with each person short-listed. And of course, the final say over who gets hired is completely their decision.
5. Centralized Decision Making
Autocratic leaders are often very useful in times when there needs to be one decision-making hub to expedite decision making and so everyone knows who’s in charge.
When a building or house is ablaze and lives are at stake, it is important that decisions be made quickly and decisively. There is simply no time for a meeting to discuss various issues or strategies.
Therefore, it is important that the decision-making process is highly centralized, in other words, that one person is in charge. This means that an autocratic leader fits the situation perfectly.
Although the person in charge may be willing to listen to suggestions, there is very little time for lengthy arguments or independent action. It is imperative that everyone is on the same page as the leader and following through on their instructions 110%.
6. Control over the Budget
If you have control over the budget then you are able to exert your own control over the company’s priorities.
Departments or projects that are not seen favorably by the autocratic leader will have their budgets cut, often to the point of simply not being able to function.
This could mean the inability to hire personnel or to acquire resources necessary to carry out the department’s objectives.
They may insist on participating in budgetary meetings. When certain items they disagree with are brought up, they will simply express their unfavorable view and others will agree.
Another strategy they might use is to require that all departmental budgets receive their approval. So, when each department submits their spreadsheet, the autocratic leader will simply go through it line by line and delete any items they disapprove of.
This is a common strategy of an autocratic leader that enables them to exert significant control over the company.
One of the primary characteristics of the autocratic leadership style is its directive nature.
The autocratic leader is decisive and very detailed oriented. They expect their team to follow their instructions precisely and without hesitation. Second-guessing decisions or being reluctant to follow directions are not acceptable.
There can be no better example of how this style is beneficial than in the hospital emergency room. When a life-and-death situation presents itself, the patient needs someone in charge that is confident and a quick decision-maker.
There simply isn’t time for discussion or seeking the input of those around. Time is of the essence and an autocratic leadership style, in that situation, can literally save lives.
8. Consolidation of Power
Unlike democratic leaders, many autocratic leaders will get into power then spend a lot of time making sure no one can take it from them. An example from recent decades is Putin.
Putin has been a leader (in one way or another) in Russia since the 1990s. He is well-known for having a strong vision and is determined to bring his country back to the forefront of international power.
His leadership style is often given as an example of strict authoritarian rule. This has involved consolidating power over many years to ensure that everyone around him agrees with his vision and supports his decisions, without hesitation.
Any one that disagrees with his commands or views can quickly find themselves in an unpleasant predicament. Public criticism or dissent can result in legal problems, imprisonment, or perhaps worse.
There is no doubt that Vladimir Putin runs his country with an iron fist and is the prototypical example of the autocratic leadership style.
9. Strength in Emergencies
In the heat of battle, there is no time for consensus-making. Decisions must be made in split seconds. Those on the team must follow orders exactly. Even a slight hesitation can result in the death of an entire group.
Because of the life-and-death nature of battle, leaders are selected based on a long and very deliberative process. Only those with a lot of experience and a great deal of confidence will be chosen.
With a selection process that is so arduous, the soldiers under the leader’s command will have a great deal of confidence in their ability to make the right decisions. They know the leader has been in extreme combat situations many times before and has what it takes to lead.
Direct combat against the enemy is a situation that absolutely requires an autocratic leader.
Many autocratic leaders are micro-managers. They will cross-check and closely examine every decision made by inferiors. Stever Jobs is a prime example.
There was never a decision made in any of the companies that Steve Jobs ran that did not come from his authority or pass his approval.
He was well-known for practicing “pixel-level management”. His style was often considered abrasive, demeaning, inflexible, and at times even arrogant. His first time at Apple he rubbed so many people the wrong way that he was eventually ousted as CEO.
Of course, we all know the story of what happened next: the company began to slip and nearly went bankrupt until…Steve Jobs was brought back.
As Richard Branson wrote in an article for The Telegraph: “Steve Jobs’ leadership style was autocratic; he had a meticulous eye for detail, and surrounded himself with like-minded people to follow his lead.” Ironically, Steve Jobs was the entrepreneur Branson admired most.
The autocratic leader is the sole decision-maker. Authority is centralized in one spot, the leader’s spot. They rarely seek the opinions of others, are highly instructive of how others should do their job, and have a tendency to micromanage and maintain as much control over all aspects of operations as possible.
Despite these characteristics, there are many instances in which an autocratic leadership style works best. For example, when individual members of a team are inexperienced when a situation demands quick decision-making, or in the early stages of a start-up that requires a firm and decisive captain, the autocratic leader is perfect for the role.
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