The Autocratic Style of Leadership

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Conference tables can tell you a great deal about leadership style. Autocratic leaders prefer the long table, typically sitting at the head of it.

Widely used in many countries, the autocratic leadership style has one major strength, but many weaknesses one must understand before using. While this leadership style has strengths, mostly it causes problems in today’s organizations.


Understanding The Autocratic Style

Autocratic personalities seek to dominate, They want all to submit, but demand submission from those lower in the dominance hierarchy. In some cases, autocratic leadership tends to be linked to the authoritarian personality structure.

Some autocratic leaders rely on force of personality. We have all run into someone who seek to dominate the conversation, who ignores almost everything we say, who tends to speak louder when questioned, and with more forcefulness when they sense doubt.

This style is still commonly seen in large bureaucratic environments and seems endemic in certain national cultures. For example, Europeans like to point out that due to the nature of the European Union, the political and business climates foster facilitative leadership, while the Americans adapt more of an autocratic style.

The autocratic leader can use other sources of influence, but fundamentally they rely on the use of authority. To take one example, a manager running a staff meeting with direct reports will periodically tell someone to take some action and that person complies sense the request is legitimate.

Strengths of the Style

There is times when people want strong leadership. The most obvious is dealing with a crisis. Another example is when people are not sure what to do themselves. Authoritarian followers also want strong autocratic leadership during meetings.

So while people desire strong leadership; paradoxically, they don’t want it all the time. This creates problems for extreme autocrats.

Problems With The Autocratic Leadership Style

Man In a Business Suit Speaking With a Bullhorn. Symbolic of autocratic leadership

Those who over rely on the autocratic leadership style tend to experience many different types of people problems.

Talent Flees—The Mediocre Stay

One big issue with this style is how it affects morale. Autocratic leaders tend to drive people out of the organization—normally the best, brightest, most talented. These people know their worth and know they can find a job somewhere else.

Bias Toward Large Organizations

They tend not to do so well in smaller, entrepreneurial cultures. Nor do they tend to prosper in organizational cultures that foster team work, continuous innovation or rapid response to environmental changes.

Buy-in is Limited

These types of leaders can get compliance, meaning someone yields to the will of another. They can get certain behaviors, but cannot capture the heart or the mind. For many years, it has been known that autocratic leaders have a difficult time with getting persuasive and motivational buy-in.

Followers Become More Passive-Aggressive

One method of dealing with this type of person is to become somewhat passive-aggressive. The passive side occurs when one agrees. The aggressive side occurs when when a variety of rationalizations, delaying tactics, insincere apologies, Ego feeds, etc. are used to fend off the dominant persons orders.

The Risk of the “Zombies Revenge

Autocratic leaders tend not to be sensitive to the feelings of others and create resentment. Metaphorically, they leave a large number of “dead bodies” along the road. These dead bodies function like zombies, waiting for the magic moment when the autocratic leader gets in trouble so they can rise up and get their revenge.

For more reading see the BusinessWeek article on Al Dunlap

Probably Conflicts With Young Professionals

The young still haven’t gotten used to what their parents have learned to tolerate. In some cultures, narcissism is increasing in the younger generation. And narcissists tend not to put up with the crap autocratic leaders throw at them.

Comparison Between Autocratic and Facilitative Leadership Styles

In many respects they are very different, but each possesses strengths that when used appropriately, can complement each other.


Facilitative Leadership

Autocratic Leadership

Verbal Patterns More Questions More Statements
Power Orientation Social. It’s more about the group and what’s good for them. Selfish. It’s mostly about me although sometimes it’s about my in-group
Influence Orientation Consensus Directive
Symbolism The round table with the leader somewhere in the middle The long table with the leader always at the head of it
Dominance Level Appears less dominant since the style is more subtle More Dominant, more Assertive
Advocacy Perceived Neutrality Rarely neutral on anything

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