Leadership Styles- The Autocratic Leader

Posted on February 12, 2010


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An autocratic leader is one who makes unilateral decisions, meaning to say, deciding based on his own judgment and does not invite opinions from others. Also known as a dictator, his words are, metaphorically speaking, law to those under his charge, to be obeyed without debate.

Though not always so, an autocratic style of leadership is commonly used alongside transactional leadership, with the enlistment of punishment. In many cases, in order to instill unquestioning obedience to the decision of the autocratic leader, harsh punishments may be meted out. This may be to instill fear or merely to signal to the team what action is appropriate and what is not.

The autocratic leadership model is successful in the sense that it allows for snap decision making. Unlike a democratic or free rein style of leadership, the autocratic leader has centralized decision making power, and is able to swiftly set a direction for the team to follow in times of emergency. This is opposed to the endless bureaucracy that may come with a democratic style of leadership, evident in the White House of today.

In a war, military commanders employing this leadership style may prove to be invaluable, and could make the difference between life and death. In the battlefield, what is often needed is not the most well thought out solution, but the quickest solution, even if it has some loopholes. Commanders in the army will agree that being paralysed in the battlefield is one sure way to see the entire platoon or even company wiped out in minutes. Rather than being embroiled in thorough discussions as to which should be the next course of action, what may well secure the victory is having one leader to stand up and lead the way. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrates that a battalion fighting based on the snap decision of a commander would win another battalion fighting with the help of elaborate information providing technology.

However, this is not to say that autocratic leadership is always suitable in all situations. Crucially, we must realise that by relying on one to make all the decisions, things could go radically wrong if the decision happens to be the wrong one. It would be putting all the eggs in one basket; if the basket falls, all the eggs will crack. Also, we should understand that in most cases the opinions of more than just one person matter. As part of the team, every member has the responsibility and entitlement to contribute to the decision making process. By leaving the all aspects of the decision to the leader, the rest of the team could be seen as not fulfilling their responsibility or not given their entitlement. From the viewpoint of a transformational leader, the autocratic leader is purely task focused, and does not consider about value adding to the development of his team.

Examples of famous autocratic leadership include the Qin Shi Huang from the monarchy in ancient China, Adolf Hitler of the Nazi era in Germany, Benito Mussolini from fascist France and Jospeh Stalin and Mao Zedong from communist Soviet Union and People’s Republic of China respectively.

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