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The Autocratic Leadership Style: 5 Strengths and 6 Weaknesses

Marie Victoire Jaquotot (1772-1855): Portrait of Napoleon in Coronation Robes
Marie Victoire Jaquotot (1772-1855): Portrait of Napoleon in Coronation Robes


Commonly seen in large bureaucratic organizations, the autocratic style is also endemic in certain national cultures. It primary advantage: subordinates comply, rarely resisting because the leader has authority and exercises legitimate power.

What is Autocratic Leadership?

The members of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Notice the symbols of authority in the picture. You might say judges rely almost exclusively on positional power.
The members of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1925. Notice the symbols of authority in the picture. You might say judges rely almost exclusively on positional power.

Autocratic leadership (also known as authoritarian leadership) relies primarily on the use of authority in groups and in organizations (Goethals, 2004). You might say it is a request that induces compliance or obedience. This compliance is almost automatic, we really don’t think much about it, we just do it. 

For example, if you are driving and a police officer pulls you over and asks see your driver’s license, you hand it over without thinking about it. Similarly, a boss asks you to do a task, it induces a similar compliance response.

It’s important to understand autocratic leadership is not based on personal influence — it is attached more to positional power in an organization or to a social role. A police officer has more authority (and symbols of authority) than a security guard, despite the fact that their behaviors are similar, though their territories are different. 

Some will argue that autocratic leadership requires little personal influence. For example, when a CEO or head of state issues an edict, obedience is given not due to the person, but due to the position. Or you might say, we obey the throne, no matter who is king. Of course smart autocrats understand that authority has limits and will seek to augment it with other types of influence.

Ottoman Throne. Image by: Badseed
Ottoman Throne. Image by: Badseed

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

How Powerful is This Type of Influence?

This is one of the truly classic experiments in psychology. What happens if you ask normal college students to play the roles of guards and prisoners?

There are many leadership styles; but we must say that authoritative influence is very powerful. This was demonstrated by a classic experiment in social psychology by Stanley Milgram who ended up writing a book under the title of “Obedience to Authority.

Milgram was able to demonstrate experimentally that people (in this case college students) can be induced to inflict pain on other individual simply by using the right symbols and citing the right authority.

Another classical illustration of the power of authority was done by psychologist Phillip Zimbardo in what came to be known as the Stanford Prison Guard experiment.

From a moral and ethical standpoint, authoritative leaders and there followers can fall into a trap, a trap that can can cause both to do really bad things. After all, it’s people that are like you an me that allow or carry out really bad behavior (Arendt, 2016)

5 Strengths of the Autocratic Style

Mongolian gerbil; Wilhelma Zoo; Stuttgart, Germany, Image by H. AZeil
Mongolian gerbil; Wilhelma Zoo; Stuttgart, Germany, Image by H. AZeil A cluch of 10 small chipmunks all huddled together

There are times when people want strong leadership. For there are times when people individuals want to be told what to do. The style is useful in a number of different contexts including:

When People Perceive a Crisis

There is some thought that some do not want to lead and prefer to be submissive, to follow, to fit in, to be a member of the group instead of the leader.

It has been seen many times that when people are afraid, they tend focus on the leader to make them feel safe again. Rarely, does one question an authoritative approach in such a time. 

When Subordinates are Uncertain

When there is an absence of information, it’s much easier for an authoritative approach to work. After all, there is no rational basis to challenge the direction provided. 

If One Has Authoritarian Followers

Fundamentally, they want strong leaders who will tell them what to do. These types have no problem acting on the orders from on high since it comes from on-high.

It’s thought that about 25 percent of the population is in this category (Altemeyer, 2006). According to Altemeyer, Experiments show that high Right Wing Authoritarians are so defensive and so unaware of themselves that when you tell them what high RWAs are like, they almost always think you’re talking about somebody else.”

Get a Free eBook: The Authoritarians

When Running a Business

It is paradoxical that within many democratic governments, corporations still have authoritative leaders at the helm.  Also government employees typically have many more rights than those in business who (depending on the country), often serve in an “at will” capacity. For example, despite have many laws in the United States protecting employee rights, most employers will have a new employee sign away these rights as a condition of their employment. 

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 Americans use more of an autocratic style. 

So while people desire strong leadership; they don’t want it all the time. This can create problems for the extreme autocrat.

6 Weaknesses of The Autocratic Leadership Style

La Fête de la Fédération, le 14 juillet 1790, au Champ-de-Mars
La Fête de la Fédération, le 14 juillet 1790, au Champ-de-Mars

Those who over rely on the autocratic leadership style tend to experience many different types of people problems. It’s important to understand though, that the problems below are much more likely in low power distance cultures than in high ones. 

Teams Need Coaches — Not Autocrats

Remember, while authority exists in a start-up, it typically requires a formal, hierarchical structure such as a bureaucracy in which to function. They  tend not to do so well in smaller, entrepreneurial organizations. Nor do they tend to prosper in organizational cultures that foster team work and continuous innovation.  

Talent Flees—The Mediocre Stay

One big issue with this style is how it affects morale. Autocratic leaders tend to drive talent people out of the organization. These people know their worth and know they can find a job somewhere else. This leaves the marginally competent who hang on for dear life rather jump ship.

Buy-in is Limited

These types of leaders can get compliance, meaning someone yields to the will of another.  But they cannot capture hearts or minds. For many years, it has been known that autocratic leaders have a difficult time getting persuasive and motivational buy-in.

Followers Become Passive-Aggressive

One method of dealing with this type of person is to become somewhat passive-aggressive (Burton, 2016). This is actually a type of personality disorder when taken to the extreme, but the more interesting question is, “What forces someone to act like this?”

One thought is that it is a behavior pattern learned by children to deal with an autocratic mother or father. After all, to resist the autocratic leader is to risk their wrath and physical and psychological punishment.

The passive side occurs when you agree. The aggressive side occurs when by using a variety of rationalizations, delaying tactics, apologies, Ego feeds, etc. the dominant person’s orders are delayed or not implemented at all. In other words, it safer to agree in the autocrats presence and resist down the road. But this must be done is a subtle way. 

Political Autocrats Create Opposition

Autocratic leaders tend not to be sensitive to the feelings of others and typically create resentment. Some use force as a tool of repression and so will create hatred or anger that can become a social movement or an opposition political party.  Metaphorically, they leave a large number of “dead bodies” along the road. These dead bodies wait 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

It Conflicts With The Desires of the Young Generation

It is often thought that the young are less tolerant of autocrats than their parents or grand parents.  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.

Table: Comparing Autocratic and Facilitative Leadership Styles

AttributeFacilitative LeadershipAutocratic Leadership Characteristics
Verbal PatternsMore QuestionsMore Statements
Power OrientationSocial. 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 OrientationConsensusDirective
SymbolismThe round table with the leader somewhere in the middleThe long table with the leader always at the head of it
Dominance LevelAppears less dominant since the style is more subtleMore Dominant, more Assertive
AdvocacyPerceived NeutralityRarely neutral on anything

References and Resources

Almereyda, Michael (2015) The Experimenter. Video is 1-hour and 36 minutes. This is the video version of  Stanley Milgram experiments testing  ordinary humans’ willingness to obey authority.

Arendt, Hanna (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Penguin Classic.

Burton, Natasha (2016) 8 Signs You’re Bing Passive-Agressive, DailyWorth.com, September 29.

George R. Goethals, ‎Georgia Jones Sorenson, ‎James MacGregor Burns  (2004). Encyclopedia of Leadership. Section on autocratic leadership. A Google book review.

Compliance (2012). A film that is based on true events in which a prank caller convinces a fast food restaurant manager to interrogate an innocent young employee.

Haney, C., Banks, W. C., & Zimbardo, P. G. (1973) A study of prisoners and guards in a simulated prison. Naval Research Review, 30, 4-17.

Milgram, Stanley (2009). Obedience To Authority, Perennial Classics

Shrinkrap Radio Podcast, The Authoritarian Personality, An Interview of Bob Altemeyer, Episode 127.

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