What is Autocratic Leadership? How Procedures Can Improve Efficiency

Autocratic leadership is vital in many workplace environments. This style is necessary within organizations and companies that demand error-free outcomes. While autocratic leadership is one of the least popular management styles, it’s also among the most common.

The autocratic leadership process generally entails one person making all strategic decisions for subordinates. Although it has fallen out of favor in recent decades, the autocratic leadership style is still prevalent.

The reason is simple: It works.

Read on to learn more:

What is autocratic leadership?

Autocratic leaders make all major decisions on their own, with little or no input from others.The short answer: “My way or the highway.”

There are many contemporary examples of leaders who prefer the “my way or the highway” technique. The autocratic style was made famous by certain military and political leaders, sports coaches and Industrial Age icons. These autocratic, or authoritarian, leaders come to mind:

  • U.S. Gen. George C. Patton
  • Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi
  • Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller
  • U.S. President Richard M. Nixon

In the 1970s, the autocratic style became less popular compared to other contemporary leadership theories. This was partly due to The New York Times’ publishing of the Pentagon Papers and The Washington Post’s Watergate exposé, which led to Nixon’s resignation.

Autocratic leadership has received a ton of criticism due to numerous factors. Here are three:

  • Historically, autocratic leadership has been associated with tyrants and dictators who used authoritarian means to cajole and threaten underlings into performing tasks.
  • Autocratic leadership has become the fallback position for managers of people who lack skills, training and experience. Motivational leadership styles are more suitable for environments with experienced staff.
  • Some people are uncomfortable working for autocratic leaders because they feel it epitomizes authoritarianism, even if it’s the most suitable management style for training inexperienced staff or implementing consistent quality control processes.

Autocratic leadership definition

Autocratic derives from the words auto (Greek for self) and cratic, which implies rule.

Autocratic leaders often view themselves like automobile engines that drive people under their tutelage or command, whether it’s a mayor of a large city, a company CEO or an agency director.

It may seem incongruous to think of autocratic leaders as self-driven. But if their role in business, government or other organizations is to drive others to perform at their best and accomplish tasks without making mistakes, then the description is appropriate.

Why are autocratic leaders considered authoritarian?

The term authoritarian, often used in conjunction with autocratic, seems more appropriate to describe leaders who make decisions with little or no input from others. But if you compare autocratic leaders to democratic and laissez-faire leaders, the definition makes sense.

Autocratic leaders don’t often illicit opinions or expertise from the people who report to them, as do democratic and laissez-faire leaders. Instead, autocratic leadership implies one person makes all the decisions for a group, team or assembly.

In this context, autocratic leaders have ominous responsibilities. Not only are they expected to make all the decisions, they’re expected to make all the right decisions.

History of autocratic leadership

History paints a colorful picture of autocratic leaders. Although some — like Attila the Hun, Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin — were maniacal tyrants, many autocratic leaders were innovators who revolutionized industries and advanced societies.

The combination of progressive ideas, self-determination and autocratic leadership led to some of history’s most significant events. These include:

  • The rise of the Roman Empire under Julius Caesar
  • The settling of the U.S. Colonies thanks to John Smith
  • The popularity of the automobile due to Henry Ford

Ford, who helped perfect assembly-line manufacturing and economies of scale, is one of the clearest examples of an autocratic leader who changed society. Although Ford remains a controversial figure as an authoritarian industrial magnet, he created hundreds of thousands of jobs and raised wages for assembly-line workers.

At the opposite extreme, Huey Long and Richard Daley — political bosses of Louisiana and Chicago, respectively — gained immense popularity in their states even as they violated all kinds of laws, including, reportedly, murder.

Was Lincoln an autocratic leader?

President Abraham Lincoln is sometimes categorized as an autocratic leader because of the many autonomous decisions he made throughout the Civil War.

Although Lincoln did not exhibit many of the authoritarian characteristics of autocratic leaders, American history demanded a bold president who was willing to make difficult and unpopular decisions from 1861 to 1865. Lincoln rose to the occasion and became the autocratic leader the United States needed at the time.

Other historic examples of autocratic leaders:

  • Genghis Khan
  • King Henry VIII
  • Queen Elizabeth I
  • Napoleon Bonaparte
  • Father Junipero Serra
  • Queen Isabella I

Examples of autocratic leadership

Discipline, preparation and victory are three pillars of autocratic leadership. These objectives are present on all successful football teams — from the Alabama Crimson Tide to the New England Patriots.

Outstanding gridiron coaches such as Bill Belichick, Bear Bryant, Bill Parcells and Woody Hayes belong on the list of autocratic leaders. None of these coaching legends managed their football programs with democracy in mind, yet all succeeded fabulously in their careers.

In addition to sports, autocratic leadership works well in environments that require near-perfect accuracy, such as manufacturing. The autocratic, or authoritarian style, is necessary with staff that need training quickly and efficiently. Fast-food enterprises frequently fall under this category.

Autocratic leadership is also common in professions where life-and-death decisions occur. Think ambulatory care and hospitals, police, military personnel and fire departments.

Autocratic leadership in the music industry

The music business is often overlooked when it comes to autocratic leaders. Whether it’s the maestro of the Boston Pops orchestra or the lead guitarist for a chart-topping band, every successful music ensemble requires a leader to maintain consistency and longevity.

Two unlikely contemporary examples of popular bands with autocratic leaders are Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and the Eagles.

Petty, a Florida native and the leader of his self-titled band, is an infamous perfectionist. As a leader, he is autocratic and demanding. Petty is credited with single-handedly leveraging record labels to share a larger take of the profits, from which today’s music artists still benefit. Petty is also unabashed about his decision to dismiss the founding drummer from his band for what amounted to a perceived lack of commitment.

Glenn Frey, a Michigan native turned permanent Arizona resident, co-founded the Eagles. Frey has a reputation as an autocratic leader who espoused the “my way or the highway” style throughout the Eagles’ successful, if rocky, road to stardom. Frey makes no apologies for his belief that he and co-founder Don Henley were the engines that drove the Eagles to fame and fortune.

Examples of autocratic leadership in business

Contrary to popular opinion, most enterprises are well-suited for the autocratic leadership style at some level. Although start-ups are often best launched under a transformative, democratic or laissez-faire style of leadership, most businesses later benefit from autocratic leadership.

This doesn’t mean mature businesses must switch to a top-down autocratic leadership style. It means that autocratic leaders are often recruited to improve efficiencies within specific departments.

The founders of many of today’s successful companies learned from industry innovators — including Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton, McDonald’s Ray Kroc, and Oracle’s Larry Ellison — that autocratic leadership is necessary to streamline processes, grow their customer base, and pave the way for long-term survival.

Other industries well-suited for autocratic leadership:

  • Restaurants: People go to restaurants with big expectations. Whether it’s a fast-food chain or an upscale establishment, customers expect consistent service, well-mannered hosts and efficient servers. Whether they order the combo burger and fries or a seven-course gourmet meal, customers expect their food to be good. Dining establishments need an autocratic leadership style to meet these expectations. Even the most cheerful and lively restaurant runs on slim margins that can tolerate minimal mistakes.
  • Manufacturing: The LCD TV business took decades to perfect through a combination of trial-and-error R&D and autocratic leadership. To meet consumer demand for affordable thin-screen TVs, LCD manufacturers endured significant rejection rates of liquid crystal display panels. Thanks to the implementation of tight quality control tolerances, achieved through autocratic leadership, today’s consumers can buy large-screen TVs for $499 that cost upwards of $5,000 in the 1990s.
  • Aerospace: Autocratic leadership that emphasizes error-free processes leads to safety and affordability in aerospace manufacturing. Considering the millions of commercial, cargo and NASA flights that launch and land safely every year, the aerospace industry deserves credit for consistent passenger safety. Their successes would not be possible without autocratic leaders and innovators.

Famous autocratic leaders

Most successful business and political icons exhibit a variety of leadership styles. This makes it difficult to label them as strictly democratic, laissez-faire, transformative or even autocratic leaders.

Nevertheless, plenty of leaders stand out as having autocratic leadership characteristics. These executives, publishers, producers, directors and coaches display authoritarian traits that contribute to their success:

  • Lorne Michaels: One of the 20th century’s most influential figures, Michaels changed television comedy and altered American culture in subtle and extraordinary ways. As creative producer of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Michaels launched hundreds of comedians’ careers, from Dan Aykroyd and Gilda Radner to Eddie Murphy and Will Ferrell. Michaels’ instinct for tapping into America’s pulse and his ability to get the most out of talent are unrivaled on TV. He is known as a demanding producer, but he exemplifies the best traits of an autocratic leader.
  • Roger Ailes: The president of the Fox News Channel has a reputation as an autocratic leader dating to the late 1960s, when he worked as an advisor to President Nixon. Ailes began his career in television broadcasting before migrating to political consulting. Ailes joined media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s launch of the Fox Entertainment Group in the late 1980s. Although controversial and authoritarian, Ailes is an accomplished executive who redefined news broadcasting for the 21st century through his autocratic leadership style.
  • Helen Gurley Brown: The former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine is notable for many things, not least of which was her ability to consistently turn a profit in publishing for more than three decades. Brown moved to New York City early in her career and blended in immediately. She assumed the helm of Cosmopolitan and revolutionized the women’s fashion market, leveraging her position to reflect and influence American culture. Brown was known as a task master in a business that thrives on getting things done with minimal corrections.
  • John Chambers: The chairman of Cisco Systems, Chambers assumed the CEO position of a relatively unknown Silicon Valley company that made telephone switches. After 25 years, Cisco evolved into an estimated $47 billion company that dominates the networking industry. Today, Cisco stock is one of a handful of bellwether holdings used to measure the U.S. economy. This was accomplished under Chambers’ autocratic leadership in which no detail was purportedly too small for his attention.
  • Ridley Scott: In an industry where box-office receipts measure success, Scott remains one of the few Hollywood directors whose films are profitable and critically acclaimed. A short list of his films includes “Blade Runner,” “Alien,” “Thelma & Louise,” “White Squall,” “Gladiator,” “American Gangster,” “Prometheus” and his recent “Exodus: Gods and Kings.” Scott, who began his career as a graphic designer, has a reputation as a perfectionist. Actors are expected to know their lines, positions and cues before the camera starts rolling.
  • Tony La Russa: The retired manager of the Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox, La Russa is one of Major League Baseball’s winningest coaches. La Russa, who earned a law degree and was admitted to the Florida state bar, is ranked third in MLB coaching history with 2,728 victories. La Russa won three world championships, six league championships and 12 division titles during his 33 seasons coaching baseball. On the field, La Russa came across as laid-back, but he was constantly strategizing and studying players.

Quotes about autocratic leadership

These leaders have reputations as being hands-on perfectionists. Here are some quotations that reflect their autocratic leadership styles:

  • Vince Lombardi: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.”
  • Henry Ford: “Quality means doing it right when no one is looking.”
  • Tony La Russa: “There are always distractions, if you allow them.”
  • Napoleon Bonaparte: “Men are moved by two levers only: fear and self-interest.”
  • Ridley Scott: “I think, at the end of the day, filmmaking is a team. But eventually there’s got to be a captain.”
  • Michael Bloomberg: “Nobody is going to delegate a lot of power to a secretary that they can’t control.”
  • Ray Kroc: “You’re only as good as the people you hire.”
  • Alfred Hitchcock: “If an actor comes to me and wants to discuss his character, I say, ‘It’s in the script.’ If he says, ‘But what’s my motivation?’ I say, ‘Your salary.’”
  • Roger Ailes: “Audiences are shifting. Platforms are shifting. Ages are shifting. It’s better to be in charge than to have to react to change.”
  • Gordon Ramsey: “Kitchens are hard environments and they form incredibly strong characters.”
  • Lorne Michaels: “To me there’s no creativity without boundaries. If you’re gonna write a sonnet, it’s 14 lines, so it’s solving the problem within the container.”
  • John D. Rockefeller: “I do not think that there is any quality so essential to success of any kind as the quality of perseverance.”

Autocratic leadership case study: Blue Cross of California

Leonard D. Schaeffer considered himself an autocratic leader when he became CEO of Blue Cross of California in 1986. At the time, the company was a fiscal disaster, the lowest performing of all the Blue Cross plans around the United States. His job was to turn it around. Schaeffer described his experience in an article in Harvard Business Review:  “The Leadership Journey.” Here’s an excerpt:

“When a business needs to change relatively quickly, it’s much more important to just make a decision and get people moving than it is to take the time to conduct a thorough analysis and attempt to influence others to come around to your way of thinking. Therefore, I would define the autocratic leader not as someone who bullies others needlessly but as the managerial equivalent of an emergency room surgeon, forced to do whatever it takes to save a patient’s life.”

Schaeffer eventually abandoned the autocratic method even though he had used it effectively earlier in his career. Likewise, students who gravitate toward this style can learn how to adapt and perfect their leadership techniques as times change.

Autocratic leadership style requirements

Autocratic leaders typically make all major decisions on their own, with little or no input from others. Extreme authoritarian leaders often insist on making even minor decisions.

Leaders needing to control minute tasks often are derided as micromanagers. Although the military traditionally encourages superiors to make unchallenged decisions, civilian organizations may not respond to this leadership style much longer.

The first formal study of leadership, including the autocratic style, is credited to Kurt Lewin and others in an article that appeared in the “American Journal of Sociology” in the 1930s. Lewin and his colleagues found autocratic leaders:

  • Generally do not solicit or accept input from others for decision-making purposes
  • Make all company or group decisions
  • Mandate all workplace methods, policies and procedures
  • Can exhibit a lack of trust in the advice, suggestions, ideas and decision-making ability of others

Autocratic leadership has pluses and minuses. The prevailing view is that the style depends on the ability of one person while disregarding the input of other skilled people. Still, many workplaces can benefit from autocratic leadership.

Who works well under autocratic leaders?

Individuals who march to the beat of their own drum generally don’t work well under autocratic leaders.

By comparison, people who can successfully lead a couple dozen diverse, figurative drummers to stay in sync and keep rhythm without missing a beat make excellent autocratic leaders.

Watch this video of band members who recognize the important role each plays to benefit the cohesive whole. Then ask yourself if a precision drumming ensemble could be achieved without the benefit of autocratic leadership:

How to leverage the autocratic style to manage successfully

After centuries as the standard management style, autocratic leadership can still succeed in the contemporary arena if leaders keep the following in mind:

  • Respect subordinates. Exhibit fairness, objectivity and show respect for co-workers. They will see or feel it. Leaders’ respect for others engenders mutual respect, which helps  defuse workplace discord.
  • Communicate and explain. Most employees realize autocratic leaders expect them to obey rules and follow procedures. Communicating details helps staff understand the rules. In turn, they are less likely to rebel and more likely to cooperate.
  • Practice consistency. Employees respect fairness and unbiased treatment. In light of the potential distrust that autocratic leadership may foster, treating all staff consistently generates trust and earns respect.
  • Allow opinions. Encourage staff to express themselves. Permitting employees to offer suggestions is a valuable component of success among autocratic leaders. Even if ideas aren’t adopted, people appreciate the freedom to share their thoughts.

Advantages and disadvantages of autocratic leadership

The autocratic leadership style has many variations. It can range from strict authoritarian military leaders, as exemplified by Napoleon and Patton, to modern manufacturing department directors.

At its worst, autocratic leadership can be stifling, overbearing and demoralizing.

At its best, the autocratic style is liberating for people who work well with clear directives under leaders who understand exactly what people do and why their roles are important.

For anyone placed in a position that requires an autocratic leadership style, it’s helpful to identify pitfalls that can cause staff to question whether it is the right approach.

Here are some advantages and disadvantages to the autocratic leadership style:

Autocratic leadership pros

  • Effective when decisions must come quickly, without time to consult others
  • Prevents businesses or projects from becoming stagnant because of poor organization or lack of leadership
  • Keeps individuals, groups or teams from missing important deadlines
  • During stressful periods, autocratic leaders can be more effective, and their teams appreciate their leadership

Autocratic leadership cons

  • Invites potential abuse by overly powerful personalities
  • Can stifle staff and discourage team creativity
  • Modern employees may not react well to authoritarian leadership
  • Can discourage open communication between leaders and subordinates

Benefits of autocratic leadership

Exceptional leaders adopt the style that fits their vision, behavior and personality. The autocratic leadership style still works well in some institutions, such as the military, manufacturing, restaurants and companies with aggressive sales quotas.

The downside of autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership isn’t as prevalent as it once was for several reasons. These include:

  • Better-educated workforces and the growth of knowledge-based industries that encourage decision-making at all levels
  • Mentoring as a leadership style, popular among millennials who generally frown on authoritarians
  • Democratic, laissez-faire and transformative leadership styles that incorporate many levels of decision-makers

The upside to autocratic leadership

As we move further into the 21st century, now is a good time to reassess the age-old benefits of autocratic leadership.

People who dislike this style often point to its demoralizing “my way or the highway” mentality. But we shouldn’t be quick to abandon autocratic leadership when it’s appropriate.

Even creative businesses — such as advertising, product design and social media firms — reach a point when autocratic leadership is necessary. When a marketing campaign, advertising program or product design moves into the launch phase, for example, its success or failure hinges on precision timing.

That’s where autocratic leadership comes into play.

Whether it’s an athletic shoe company like Nike or a social media powerhouse like Facebook, autocratic leadership is sometimes vital. Autocratic leaders help guarantee deadlines are met by training people properly to assume responsibility for their respective roles and to reach their goals.

At the end of the day, autocratic leadership shares the same objectives as other styles. It’s all about achieving success.

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