Autocratic leadership is in place at a number of businesses. It is vital to their success because error-free outcomes are consistently necessary. Even though this type of leader is usually one of the most unpopular style that is used, it is common because it generates results.
An autocratic leader demands absolute compliance. You either perform tasks in the way they are ordered, or you discover that you don’t have a job. It is a leadership style that is prevalent in the military, in sports, and in politics.
To sum up this leadership style in one sentence: “It’s my way, or it’s the highway.”
In the past, autocratic leadership was always associated with dictators and tyrants. They used their political power to threaten those beneath them to complete specific tasks, like paying a higher tax rate. In modern theory, it has become a style that is well-suited for businesses which must hire inexperienced employees, but then still must meet quality quotas to maintain their cash inflows.
What Is the Definition of Autocratic Leadership?
The English word autocratic comes from the combination of two Greek words. The literal definition of the word means “self-rule.”
An autocratic leader is the driving force of a team. They are the energy that produces an engine which drives a project forward. They might be the CEO of a company, an entry-level manager, or the mayor of a small town – it doesn’t matter. Their leadership style is self-driven, which helps to drive results in others.
Autocratic leadership is often considered to be an authoritarian leadership style. Although this is not always true, most autocratic leaders make independent decisions without the opinions of others. They rely on their own expertise, not the experiences of their team, to create forward progress on the work which needs to be done.
From a business perspective, that makes sense. You want to manufacture products or offer services that are free from errors. Creating specific guidelines, then ordering compliance, can make this happen.
From a governing standpoint, however, the issue of autocratic leadership is far more ominous. Not only are you requiring the political leader to make every decision, you are putting them into a position where they must always make the correct decision.
If there is one general truth about humanity, it is this: humans are fallible.
The History of Autocratic Leadership
We often use rose-colored glasses to look upon the autocratic leaders we’ve experienced in the past. Some of the most significant events in world history came about because of the actions of an autocratic leader.
Julius Caesar brought the Roman Empire into the role of a global superpower.
John Smith helped to establish the colonies in the New World that would eventually form into the United States.
Henry Ford created an assembly line process which helped to make the automobile affordable for more households, despite the fact that he failed at his first auto startup, the Detroit Automobile Company, in just 18 months.
We find that there are two extremes found in the role of an autocratic leader, even when they are using their position to provide for the general good of others. Julius Caesar brought Rome to prominence through bloody purges of political opponents. Ford brought higher wages to workers, then hired a former Navy boxer to intimidate employees from organizing into a union.
Many people tend to focus on the good that happened with an autocratic leader present, justifying their thoughts by having the “ends justify the means.” That is why a leader like Donald Trump can be immensely popular, even though he lies frequently and is under several investigations. Because his actions are beneficial to some, the “questionable” conduct can be overlooked.
If you’re not sure if a leader is an autocratic leader, you can look for three specific attributes: 1 – a desire to win at all costs; 2 – discipline to get the job done; and 3 – structured preparation to build a team.
Autocratic Leadership in Sports
Most sports teams have a head coach who uses autocratic leadership. You won’t find people like Bill Belichick, Mike Krzyzewski, or Tony LaRussa operating in a democratic fashion with their coaching style.
Can you imagine Bill Belichick going into a team meeting with 5 different plans for an upcoming game, then asking his team to vote on the one they think will be most successful? Or Mike Krzyzewski asking his players to vote on who makes the starting lineup for each basketball game?
Of course not. That is because sports are based on a need to perform specific actions at a specific time. Some head coaches might delegate play calling duties to their quarterback, but the rest of the team follows the play that is called. You do that because there is a need for accuracy and consistency.
If Tom Brady called for a deep throw down the middle, but his linemen decide to block on a slant for a run, the play would have a lower chance for success. That is why autocratic leadership is almost always present in sports at every level – including youth sports, like Little League.
Autocratic Leadership in Business
Most corporations are well-suited for the autocratic leadership style as well. Smaller businesses don’t usually use this type of leadership because they rely on the experiences of everyone to be successful.
Larger businesses, however, will use an autocratic leadership style which starts at the top. Most of today’s biggest companies, such as Walmart, McDonald’s, and Facebook, use this type of leadership within their C-Suite to improve efficiencies.
That is because the structure of autocratic leadership is simple. The leader orders something to be done, so the worker does it. That makes it easier to streamline internal processes, which can turn into a case for long-term survival for the company.
With that being said, there are some industries which are better suited for autocratic leadership than others. Here are some examples.
The Restaurant Industry: When a customer visits a restaurant, they have certain expectations that must be met. Their food must be safe to eat. It must be delivered in a timely fashion. The meal must taste good. They must receive services from the waitstaff that is pleasant and efficient. To meet all of these expectations, an autocratic leadership style is used, beginning with the owner or general manager, then filtering its way down to each employee.
The Defense Industry: The military will often use an autocratic leadership style because soldiers need to rely on instinct and consistency in times of danger. Defense contractors follow the same lead. The equipment that is produced for the military must meet specific quality standards. Those who use these assets must have confidence in the way their equipment operates. With autocratic leadership, the specific manufacturing processes necessary to create that consistency are able to exist.
The Aerospace Industry: Can you imagine boarding an airplane where assembly workers could vote on the quality of the parts that were used for construction? Would you fly in a plane where there was no direct supervision over the quality of the craftsmanship being used? With airplanes flying at an altitude of 35,000 feet or more, you must have error-free processes in place to protect those who use the final products.
In business, there is a need to be adaptable. There are times when a different leadership style is necessary for specific situations. What you will find, however, is that the primary leadership style fallback in large companies is almost always the autocratic leadership style.
Autocratic Leadership in Politics
Although many countries elect their leaders through a democratic process, the general population is electing people who will govern using autocratic leadership.
Take the United States as an example. There are 100 senators and 435 congressional representatives elected to the national government. In Congress, one of their roles is to create legislation that applies to the county as a whole. Once they vote on it, the bill gets sent to the President for a signature.
Then the Supreme Court can weigh-in on the legal validity of that legislation if someone brings a lawsuit challenging it.
Now imagine that the general population would need to vote on every piece of legislation to approve it before it could become law. That is the difference between an autocratic leadership style and a democratic leadership style.
We are asked to follow the laws which are passed at every level (city, county, state, and national) because we have elected people into those governing roles. They tell us what to do, so we do it. If we choose to break a law, then we have consequences to face because of it.
In a democratic leadership style, we’d get to vote on the laws first. If a majority approved of it, then we would all need to follow it. If not, then the law would be rejected, and no one would need to follow it.
That is why the autocratic leadership style is such a powerful one. It is also why the decisions made by these leaders must be right all the time, because they impact everyone.
Keith Miller has over 25 years of experience as a CEO and serial entrepreneur. As an entrepreneur, he has founded several multi-million dollar companies. As a writer, Keith's work has been mentioned in CIO Magazine, Workable, BizTech, and The Charlotte Observer. If you have any questions about the content of this blog post, then please send our content editing team a message here.