What is autocratic leadership?

What is autocratic leadership?

Total control. Respect. Power.

To some, autocratic leadership sounds hyper-efficient and effective. It’s something to aspire to. To others, it sounds like a nightmare.

Really, it’s just another approach to leadership with its own pros and cons. In some situations, it’s the right - perhaps even only - way to proceed. But we’ll get to that.

First, let’s find out what it really means.

What is autocratic leadership?

Autocratic leadership means the leader wields complete control over decision-making; it’s the ultimate ‘top-down’ management approach. Autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting their team members and expect complete compliance from those they lead.

Yes - there’s a reason why this leadership style is often associated with dictatorship and authoritarianism. But is it all bad?

Is autocratic leadership effective?

Well, it can be! In some ways, it eliminates a degree of risk because you - the leader - can consult whichever sources you like before making a decision. It doesn’t mean making decisions without input, just that you are the one that has the final say.

However, it also creates mountains of (different) risks. There are reams of workplace culture issues created by leaders who use this approach in the wrong context. Ultimately, it can lead to stress, frustration and disillusionment.

Find out more about psychological safety, which is vital to a health organisation and is hard to maintain if there are lots of rules (and punishments for breaking them). Oh, and about the importance of accountability - which is something you need to get exactly right in this framework!

So let’s find out when it works, when it doesn’t and how to make sure you get it right!

Is autocratic leadership right for me?

This leadership framework can work for you if you are extremely competent and your workplace requires a clear chain of command to function effectively. Autocratic leadership can allow you to make decisions quickly, and in situations where your team doesn't have the skills or knowledge to make good decisions.

If you work in a highly regulated industry or a dangerous working environment, autocratic leadership can also be a great tool for creating clarity.

For example, if you’re producing medical devices for a huge company, you can’t involve everyone in making decisions. You’ll have (or be) a regulatory specialist with deep knowledge of the latest rules. Then, you can work out the most commercially viable way of proceeding without breaking any of them.

In that situation, you’ll want to know your instructions are being followed to the letter. You don’t want creative thinking happening all over the place. You can still structure time for this to happen, though, so it doesn’t have to crush innovation.

If you have a highly specialist, highly creative team then this approach is best used sparingly, such as in a crisis situation. It can disincentivise idea generation, especially if a decision not to pursue an idea is ‘handed down’ with no recognition of the value of the idea, or explanation of why.

And of course, you miss out on insights from your team, who are often closer to the ‘work’ and therefore have plenty of value to offer.

There is a time and a place for this type of leadership, and it’s best used alongside other, more democratic approaches.

Pros and cons of autocratic leadership

Pros: allows fast decision making, helps maintain order and organisation in crisis or high-stress situations. Creates clarity about roles and responsibilities, and everyone knows where they stand.

Cons: can make people feel like cogs in a machine, or like their professional skills or judgement are not respected. Can also lead to biassed and/or downright bad decisions if the right research/consultations don’t happen ahead of decisions being made.

How does autocratic leadership compare with other leadership styles?

Take a look at How to lead: 11 leadership styles and frameworks to see how autocratic leadership compares to 10 other approaches.

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