Welcome to the Leadership Styles Blog Series – today we will be exploring Autocratic Leadership. This style of leadership is sometimes referred to as the classic or traditional approach to leadership. It involves the leader retaining all the power and leading by instruction. Employees will have little or no input in any decision making processes and will work completely under the direction of the leader. When you think of this style of leadership it often conjures up images of the old-fashioned hard-nosed boss.
Autocratic leadership was commonly adopted by many practicing managers and leaders in the past. In the modern world of business where the values, feelings and opinions of the employees are more regularly considered this style of leadership it implemented less frequently. However, it still has a place in the overall leadership armoury of modern leaders.
It is important understand that a leader does not simply pick a leadership style and use it regardless of the situations. Instead they will jump from one style to another throughout a period of work and for some situations autocratic leadership may be the preferred option. In addition, please do not get autocratic leadership and rudeness mixed up – just because the leader is being assertive and instructional in their leadership they can still do so in a polite and respectful manner.
I have heard some teachers of leadership tell their students that autocratic leadership is out-dated and should not be used in the modern world of business. This is a ridiculous notion as you will hopefully see as we progress through this article. I agree that this style of leadership should only be used when necessary however in some situations it is absolutely necessary. I am not suggesting leaders should go around all day barking orders at people but in some cases the leader will need to be autocratic and they will not be leading effectively if they do not have this style of leadership at their disposal.
Some situations and work environments require an autocratic approach in order to ensure work is completed effectively, on time and in a safe manner. Employees sometimes need clarity regarding what is expected of them and precise direction outlining their work activities. This is often the case for employees who are new to the job role or those who have a low level of skill and experience.
Autocratic leadership is often witnessed when a leader is dealing with employees who have very low levels of knowledge, experience and skill. When this is coupled with insufficient time to train and educate the staff member a more direct approach to leadership is required to in order to complete tasks within the set timescale. Obviously it is important to adopt an alternative leadership style when sufficient time becomes available to train and educate the employee but when deadlines are tight, and tasks need to be completed, being autocratic is often the best option for both the leader and the employee.
Another key strength of autocratic leadership is that it is often required to maintain the welfare of the staff. Due to having greater knowledge and experience the leader is sometimes the only person who has the understanding and foresight to see that the employees are placing themselves at risk. If this is the case it is the leader’s responsibility to provide clear and direct instruction to the staff to ensure their safety.
For example, if an employee is using a piece of machinery incorrectly and placing themselves and their colleagues at risk the leader has a duty to step in and deal with the situation in an autocratic style. As previously stated this does not mean the leader has to be rude and aggressive but they do have to be assertive and clear in their direction. This can be followed up with appropriate training and support to prevent the situation from occurring again.
The biggest criticism for autocratic leadership is that it is too prescriptive and it does not consider and incorporate the opinions and expertise of the employees. This is turn results in a lack of opportunity for development within the workforce. Poorly skilled staff will always be poorly skilled staff if all the leader does is leads them in an autocratic style.
If the employees are never exposed to decision making processes or ever have the opportunity to think for themselves their development will be minimal. They will learn by doing but once they have mastered the job they have been given there is no scope or opportunity to develop beyond that point.
Predominant and consistent use of autocratic leadership has been linked to high staff turnover, poor morale, lack of development and lack of respect for the leader. Staff will demonstrate a decrease in motivation and will be uninspired to work. Innovation and creativity will be limited and staff will feel undervalued and unappreciated as individuals.
Many modern perspectives of autocratic leadership look at it from a [values-based leadership] approach and while this is very admirable it is simply not realistic. Autocratic leadership still has a place in the modern business it just needs to be used in an appropriate way.
It should definitely not be a leader’s preferred style as it does not empower staff, nor does it provide them with opportunities for development, however you cannot ignore the fact that it is essential in some situations, particularly where staff safety and pressure to achieve short-term targets is concerned. As long as autocratic leadership is supported with alternative supportive leadership styles it remains a fundamental element of leadership.