The Autocratic Leadership Style—and Why It Doesn’t Work!

On day one of a new job, one thing remained in my assigned cubical from the prior resident. A whiteboard with a single quote read in red letters: “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” I asked a co-worker what the phrase meant, and he quickly said, “Oh, you’ll see!”

Wow, was he right. The phrase summed up the blanket leadership approach that I experienced for my tenure with that company.

When employees shared ideas or presented possible solutions, instead of listening, we heard “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Managers were unwilling to challenge policies or processes of the executives or even look at new ideas—because that’s the way we’ve always done it.

Autocratic leader chastising his teamThis experience was highly indicative of an autocratic leadership style, which is inadequate—and ineffective—most of the time. To handle the many sides of the business and the continually fluctuating nuances of people and situations, this type of leadership falls short. This leadership style often creates uncertainty in teams and trepidation and fear in employees.

What Is Autocratic Leadership?

Autocratic leadership is one form of five leadership styles of Autocratic, Authoritarian, Democratic, Permissive and Authentic. The terms Autocratic and Authoritarian are often used interchangeably however there are some differences in their use. In this blog, we’re only going to be discussing autocratic. The term “autocratic” derives from the words auto (Greek for self) and cratic, which implies rule. This style of leadership is characterized by a primary leader with a fixed rules and mindsets. An autocratic type of leader holds the authority to make decisions without involvement or input from other employees or team members.  

Autocratic leaders create highly structured and rigid environments. These leaders dominate team members, work methods, and processes. Their tone with employees and teams is often blunt. They bark orders and give little autonomy. These leaders are often highly competitive and a common flaw of theirs is taking credit for the ideas and solutions of others. Little to no trust exists in teams and employees lead by autocratic leaders. These kinds of leaders usually micro-manage and give continual direction to keep employees on task.

The Consequences of Autocratic Leadership  to Relationships with Employees and Teams

Autocratic leadership does not welcome group solutions and input which is discouraging and alienates highly skilled and self-reliant employees. Over time, these interactions create an environment of poor morale and discouraged employees who fear for their jobs. They rarely raise concerns or share ideas due to fear that they may face humiliation and criticism. Employees do not feel safe and rarely trust their leaders. Employees often become compliant vs. creative and solution-oriented. Employees can begin to resist in ways that are unproductive and harmful to the health of a business. An autocratic approach promotes secrecy and dishonesty between leaders and employees.

In my job experience above, I quickly learned that my questions and ideas would meet a wall: “because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” When I presented ideas that I felt would save time and money or create ease, I was told to drop it. Eventually, I stayed in my own lane, kept my head down, controlled what I could and did the best I could. I found camaraderie with other employees in unproductive conversation that involved complaining about leadership and things I could not change.

The autocratic leadership qualities talked about so far might lead you to believe that there aren’t any redeemable characteristics of this leadership style. However, when used effectively and selectively, i.e., critical decisions needed in financial crisis, it can be useful. When this style is overused or asserted in inappropriate situations, the strain to relationships of employees with leaders and within teams and overall culture is stifling.

Related Reading: Crucial Qualities Leaders Need in a Time of Crisis

A medical emergency would warrant autocratic leadership

When Is an Autocratic Leadership Style Appropriate?

There are limited situations where an autocratic approach has a place. However, there are a few areas where this leadership style works and can be very useful. When decisions need to be made quick and definitive, requiring immediate action, autocratic leadership is warranted.

For example:

  • A company with poor performance in need of a quick turn-around.
  • Companies going through a merger where teams need firm changes and clearly defined expectations.
  • When a leader has the most knowledge on a subject or situation and their experience far outweighs others' limited perspective.
  • When lives are in danger, such as the leadership role within the military.
  • Medical emergencies when fast action is required to save lives.

In the above cases, the actions of a leader are time sensitive and quick action is imperative to create stability and safety. Quick decisions with heavy consequences such as safety issues or financial crisis often can be best addressed by an autocratic approach. Autocratic leadership can be effective when well executed, although it is rarely the best approach in many instances of business.

What is the best leadership approach in business? The most effective leadership style is dependent on the nature of the situation. Let’s briefly explore this concept.

Related reading: "How to Be an Authentic Leader"
Successful leadership considers the situation

Choosing Leadership Styles Based on Situational Leadership Theory

The situational leadership theory is the idea that no single leadership style is ideal for all situations. Each situation determine the best response versus approaching all situations with the same leadership style. Successful leaders flow through all leadership styles as required by individual situations. This approach creates a more responsive and effective culture and supports a collaborative environment. Leading in this way requires situational awareness and emotional intelligence skills.  

“Because that is the way we’ve always done it” certainly had some applicable situations. Policies were in place to protect people and the company. Public responses on product supply because of natural disasters required pivoting quickly. However, it was more common for autocratic responses to mismatch the situation. Skilled leaders who dynamically utilize the different leadership styles in their responses to situations are the most effective leaders.

Related Reading: How to Skyrocket Your Results with Authentic Leadership

Successful leaders require the right set of tools. Do you want to increase your leadership skills? Heartmanity is here for you! Check out our programs at Heartmanity for Business. We offer customized support and executive coaching along with leadership and team training to help businesses thrive.

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Christina Maxwell / Heartmanity ContributorChristina Maxwell / Heartmanity Contributor
Christina has a B.S. in Business Administration and two decades of management experience across multiple industries. First introduced to Heartmanity as a coaching client in 2013, she quickly fell in love with the work. After experiencing significant transformation in all areas of her life, she became deeply committed to the Heartmanity mission. Christina brings tremendous expertise and is an invaluable asset to support the growing demand for Heartmanity’s business and coaching programs. Another passion of Christina's is helping couples navigate engagements, intentional wedding planning, and wedding ceremonies. She is Heartmanity's resident ordained minister.

Posted in Business and Leadership