If you look at any of the origin stories of some of the biggest companies in the world, you’re likely to see talismanic figures who stand out above the rest and personify the company’s image in your mind. Think Steve Jobs at Apple, Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Elon Musk at Tesla. All of these individual figures are leaders who almost loom larger than the brands that they have built.
When we look at those successes, it creates some interesting questions around the nature of leadership in general. Is there a reason that this seemingly lone wolf approach has delivered such exceptional results? Or can we just chalk it up to a few individual geniuses that only come around once in a generation?
To delve into this, let’s discuss the concept of autocratic leadership.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
At its essence, autocratic leadership refers to a leadership style where an individual has complete control over the direction that a company is heading in and all the decisions along the way. Autocratic leaders tend to trust their own gut and intuition when leading a company, and very rarely take on advice and ideas from those in their team.
Another way to say it is ‘authoritarian leadership’ which obviously brings up a range of negative connotations – but crystallizes the point nicely.
Although its reputation there are strengths and weaknesses of every leadership style and it’s no different here. An autocratic leader can actually be in the best interests of the group in certain circumstances – so we need to measure up the pros and cons carefully before racing to a judgment.
To show just how widespread the opinions are on this topic, look at this data from a Leadership IQ study which surveyed over 14,000 thousand people about their ideal leader:
This demonstrates that while it seems that a single decision-maker is slightly less desirable, there is actually no clear consensus on this one in the marketplace. It still remains a hotly debated topic and one that has plenty of nuances if we take it seriously.
To being our investigation, let’s look at some of the pros and cons.
The Benefits of Autocratic Leadership
Every circumstance is different, of course, but here are some of the general principles that are in favor of autocratic leaders:
- Fast Decision Making. When you essentially only have one decision-maker, a company can move incredibly fast because a decision is never held up by committees, debates, or consensus-finding. An autocratic leader can be incredibly decisive and keep the momentum of a fast-growing company, that is worth its weight in gold when competing in highly competitive industries. If it’s the wrong decision, a company can quickly turn around and go in a different direction, again on the word of the leader.
There’s an interesting parallel here to war, where many countries would elect a more authoritarian leader during wartimes because decisiveness was incredibly important when the stakes were so high. In crisis periods at a business, the same principle applies.
- Clear Direction. When you have one leader selecting a mission / vision, it provides a clear direction for everyone else to follow. This helps to have all team members on the same page and pulling in the same direction. There are no other agendas, no room for confusion. Everyone involved can just focus on executing the tasks that are handed to them, without worrying about other distractions.
Research has shown that in environments where perceived job mobility is low and the trust in the leader is very high, an autocratic leader can actually be a desirable situation because it simplifies the organizational psychology inherent in running a business.
- Make Difficult Decisions. An autocratic leader is able to make difficult decisions that might be hard to swallow for team members – in a way that you can’t when you have multiple people involved in a decision. An autocratic leader doesn’t have to worry about popularity or anything like that – they can just focus on what is best for the long-term future of the project.
- Lone Genius. Every now and then you get a product visionary or innovator that is truly one of a kind and it’s much more effective to give them the reins than it is to get in their way. These leaders tend to be able to manifest a new future and they drag the rest of us along with them. For example, just how much would Steve Jobs have been able to accomplish if he didn’t wield the power that he did at Apple? It’s difficult to say in hindsight – but it’s certainly not a factor you can ignore when you talk about the success of the company.
Those benefits are what have driven autocratic leaders in the past and in certain circumstances, they can still be incredibly powerful.
However, it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows when you have one person in charge. There are a number of weaknesses that we must also consider when discussing an autocratic leader.
The Weaknesses of Autocratic Leadership
These tend to come to mind much quicker than the benefits because we’ve all experienced some form of authoritarian leadership somewhere along the line, from a leader who distinctly wasn’t one of those lone geniuses.
Here are some of the common weaknesses of this form of leadership:
- Disempowerment. When you feel like you have no input on the direction of your work or no way to change things in your working environment, it can be incredibly damaging psychologically. No one wants to have things dictated to them all the time, they want to feel empowered to speak up, share ideas, and play a role in where the company is heading. Autocratic leadership is prone to fostering resentment within the team which can significantly break morale.
This study done with a group of teachers demonstrates just what an impact autocratic leadership can have on overall job satisfaction when compared to a more democratic style. It’s just not a leadership style that leads to very happy or fulfilled teams.
- Lacking Diversity of Thought. There’s that old adage that two heads are better than one, and it plays out here. When you are only going with one person’s ideas, you end up with a much more shallow foundation which can have significant blind spots. Having a diversity of thought in your leadership structures is a huge advantage because it can leverage the unique background, expertise, and creativity of each person – which should get you to a better final solution as a result.
- Corruption Through Power. An authoritarian can easily be corrupted by the power at their disposal and lose sight of the mission, the stakeholders, and the reality of what they’re presiding over. It’s extremely rare to find an autocratic leader who can remain humble and grounded enough to not let the authority go to their head. It’s an innately human trait and it’s difficult to overcome.
- No Checks and Balances. When no one can raise red flags or a decision doesn’t have to run through some basic checks and balances, you can end up making some serious errors because of a blind spot or incorrect assumption on behalf of the autocratic leader. This can cause significant damage to the organization and sometimes can be an existential threat. Adding more decision-makers definitely slows down decisions, but it also helps to avoid making poor ones because of a robust process that allows for everyone to raise concerns in advance.
The weaknesses are quite significant and worth keeping in mind as we hold this leadership style under the microscope. It seems that autocratic leadership is becoming less and less popular in modern society and the question remains as to whether it will ever regain the cultural norm that it once had.
Is Autocratic Leadership Outdated?
If you look carefully at the case for autocratic leadership, you’ll realize that most of the benefit comes purely from the speed of decision-making. And in a pre-digital age, it made a lot of sense to prioritize this because it could give you such an immense advantage if you could get it right.
In today’s world, where technology has completely transformed how we communicate, how we plan, how we iterate, and how we do business – it seems that we don’t need to rely on that individual decision-making in the same way. We’ve developed systems and technologies that make it possible to gather information, insights, opinions, and advice at scale, and use that to feed a robust decision-making process in real-time.
The rapid advancement of technology has brought a cadence and momentum to group collaboration that renders the benefits of autocratic leadership up for debate, for all intents and purposes. You can be incredibly agile as an organization while still using a bottom-up approach and involving all of your team members in the process.
In addition, there has been a very clear societal shift towards more collaboration and diversity of thought within our spaces. As we’ve made progress towards a more equal society, we’ve started to realize that being able to involve a wide variety of people in a genuine way actually makes a big difference to what we’re capable of building. There is wisdom in the crowds and now that we have the technology to gather those insights efficiently – why wouldn’t we use them?
From where we’re sitting, it seems that autocratic leadership was a fit for a generation of the past who relied on individuals because the work of connecting and collaborating was just too slow. But today, in 2021, things have shifted beneath our feet.
We’ve seen, time and time again, how bottom-up management and employee empowerment lead to much richer conversations, and a much healthier business model. When employees feel like their voice actually gets heard and that they can make a real impact in an organization, that’s where the magic happens.
We have to move away from the idea that one lone product genius or one charismatic leader is going to carry us to where we need to be. The leadership of tomorrow is much more about listening to the groundswell coming from within and allocating resources accordingly to move towards the desired result. There are no excuses not to do that in the modern world, not with the technology of today.
The days of autocratic leadership are numbered.
It’s time to shift how we think about leadership.