What Is Autocratic Leadership? Definition, Pros and Cons
Updated February 3, 2023
During your career, you may gain a leadership role that provides you with the privilege of managing employees and supporting their success. Many leadership styles exist, and it's important for you to choose the right one for you and your team. For example, choosing an autocratic one may benefit you and your team if your employees require clear direction and strict guidelines to meet business needs.
In this article, we answer, "What is autocratic leadership?" and discuss its characteristics and history, examine pros and cons of this leadership style, provide examples of autocratic leader traits and share four jobs that may work well for this type of leader.
What is autocratic leadership?
Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a style of management in which one leader holds the power to make decisions without input from others. While input is not always necessary, this style can also use a small group of trusted advisors to help. Autocratic leadership often works in situations that require error-free outcomes or immediate decisions and situations with potential safety risks or time constraints.
Autocratic leaders oversee daily tasks and provide clear direction to each member of the team. They aren't as involved with long-term goal-setting or career progression as other types of leaders. Those who follow the autocratic style focus on making sure team members complete critical tasks according to schedule. In addition, these leaders may often work on teams of people who have limited skills, experience or training.
Core character traits of autocratic leaders
The following four characteristics enable autocratic leaders to lead teams successfully:
Self-confidence: Having self-confidence means believing in your skills and abilities, which is especially important for making good decisions based on many options and the impact of each choice. In a high-stress or time-restricted situation, it's important for an autocratic leader to trust their own knowledge and judgment despite external pressure.
Motivation: It's essential for autocratic leaders to be self-motivated and have the ability to motivate those they lead. Skills such as empathy and communication help these leaders understand what their team needs and outline realistic strategies for their team to achieve.
Clarity: Being clear and consistent is crucial for autocratic leaders when giving direction and delegating tasks to team members. The ability to outline expectations and processes for completing certain tasks ensures that those involved in the work can perform tasks at a high level.
Dependability: These leaders follow the rules of their company because they understand these guidelines enable efficiency and productivity. This quality makes them dependable, especially in teams that benefit from hierarchy.
Pros of autocratic leadership
Autocratic leadership delivers several key benefits for team members and those who follow this style of leadership, including:
Improved productivity: Since autocratic leaders delegate tasks directly to team members, delays in productivity are less common. These leaders can help employees find solutions and reassign tasks to ensure that work continues without stopping.
More direct communication: Autocratic leaders provide all necessary information to employees, which simplifies the lines of communication. If a team member needs clarification or additional information to complete their tasks, their autocratic supervisor rarely has to refer to another person to provide that information.
Reduced employee stress: These leaders are responsible for making decisions, which can remove pressure from employees who may not feel comfortable doing so. Employees trust effective autocratic leaders to make informed, impactful decisions so that others can focus on their individual responsibilities.
Quicker decision-making: In high-pressure situations, time restriction can often impact decision-making, and having multiple people collaborate on decisions might risk the situation's integrity. Autocratic leaders consider all options and potential outcomes, and then they make a reasonable decision that provides the most benefit.
Cons of autocratic leadership
Autocratic leaders have the opportunity to take full control, responsibility and stress and build and maintain a productive operation. In a negative work environment, they also have the power to micromanage, enforce employee dependence, bully and generally mistreat their team. In some situations, this leadership style can:
Lead to micromanagement: Leaders who choose full control in the work environment may also closely monitor the tasks, progress and performance of their direct reports. Instead of offering simple directions, deadlines and goals to guide their team's work, micromanaging autocrats intervene and correct employees at every step of the process.
Encourage dependence: Having a leader responsible for every tasks and problem removes potential worry and stress for the team, but also sets up a relationship of total dependence. Even in work situations, it's important that no one's entirely dependent upon another for their happiness, motivation and career development.
Remove the potential for individual ownership: An autocrat typically takes responsibility for both their team's failures and achievements. In this kind of environment, it can be difficult for individual team members to feel appreciated for their own ideas, value and contributions.
Creates mutual mistrust: Since autocratic leaders typically keep all company information to themselves, this kind of environment can make employees feel powerless and misinformed, and ultimately mistrust their leader's actions. Conversely, having full control can make autocratic leaders feel isolated and lack trust in their team.
The history of autocratic leadership
The autocratic leadership style often receives criticism because, when used incorrectly and in the wrong environment, it can allow leaders to abuse their power. Historically, tyrants and dictators, when given absolute power, have abused this privilege and used their power to demean and abuse their subordinates.
When used properly and in the right setting, though, there can be benefits to the autocratic leadership style. An autocratic leader has full control over the strategy, implementation and management of a group, which creates a uniquely informed perspective.
Related: Pros and Cons of Autocracy
Examples of effective autocratic leadership
When considering whether autocratic leadership would work in a specific environment, consider how these scenarios benefit from this style of leadership.
Motivating teams to reach daily goals
Here's an example of using autocratic leadership to encourage a team to meet its goals:
Jason, a supervisor at a manufacturing plant, leads a team of new workers on the assembly line. His team's job is to pull any visually defective products off the assembly before they move to the next phase. Jason implemented a new system that rewarded the individual who removed the most defective products at the end of each shift, increasing productivity and decreasing how many products made it to the next phase.
Related: The Best Ways To Motivate Your Team
Creating more productive teams
Consider this example of how autocratic leadership may help with productivity:
Roger manages a team at a customer service call center. Many of the team members are entry-level candidates with limited experience and training. Roger used the autocratic leadership style to create clear expectations and developed a detailed script for what to say when a caller asks specific questions so the customer service team members can provide consistent and effective service. The team's approval ratings increased, which helped the organization generate more business due to improved customer support.
Establishing focused goals
Here's an example of employing autocracy to set focused goals:
Mary is a team leader at a busy pet food manufacturing plant. She outlined a goal for team members on the quality assurance line to reduce mistakes that caused pet food waste. Anyone whose performance didn't meet that goal received additional training to improve their performance. By implementing this shared goal among all members of the team, Mary renewed the focus on quality and productivity while reducing the number of mistakes made.
Making important decisions
Review this example of making important decisions following autocratic leadership ideals:
Elizabeth is a hospital doctor and often attends emergency situations alongside nurses. One of her patients had a fever, and the medication his doctor originally prescribed seemed to make his symptoms worse. Rather than collaborate with the nurses on what to do, Elizabeth checked the patient's chart to understand the development of his condition, his current prescribed medications and his allergies.
She quickly changed the medication and delegated the task of administering it to the attending nurse. The patient's fever decreased, and his condition stabilized. Elizabeth used her extensive knowledge of the patient's condition and medical history to make a decision that helped heal him.
Related: 12 Ways To Make Better Decisions
Jobs for autocratic leaders
Autocratic leaders are successful in many industries and professional settings. Military and law enforcement are two fields that commonly use autocratic leadership to create order and navigate high-pressure situations. The fields of medicine, manufacturing and construction also employ autocratic leaders.
Here are a few positions for autocratic leaders to pursue:
National average salary: $38,971 per year
Primary duties: Correctional officers (COs) abide by the strict rules of the judicial system to ensure the safety of inmates and fellow COs. They patrol the correctional institution, secure the facility and inmates and assist in various elements of inmate rehabilitation.
They utilize autocratic leadership among their team and in the facility to ensure that employees follow all the rules. Most facilities also have a warden who employs autocratic leadership to make decisions for the well-being of the inmates based on judicial law.
National average salary: $50,729 per year
Primary duties: Warehouse supervisors are responsible for training employees, regulating and maintaining production standards, promoting safety and reporting on production quality. They work under the manufacturing industry's specific guidelines to produce quality materials. These supervisors often use the autocratic leadership style to be sure that their team safely operates equipment, meets production goals and creates quality deliverables.
National average salary: $51,652 per year
Primary duties: While different culinary industries have different standards, restaurant managers lead their teams in providing quality customer service and food to patrons. Their responsibilities include training employees, inspecting production quality and conducting customer relations as needed. Autocratic leadership helps restaurant managers maintain high-quality standards to improve the patron experience.
Read more: Learn About Being a Restaurant Manager
National average salary: $195,930 per year
Primary duties: Surgeons lead the operation team in stabilizing patients, performing surgical procedures and quickly addressing emergency situations. In the operating room, a surgeon uses autocratic leadership to maintain the team's focus and delegate tasks appropriately. They lead others while remaining calm in high-pressure situations.
Read more: Learn About Being a Surgeon
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