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Is Autocratic Leadership Relevant Today?

While not suitable for many kinds of environments, this style may work in unskilled industries where there is less need for communication and creativity.

August 23, 2010
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<p>Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, Attila the Hun and Gen. George Patton all have one thing in common: autocratic leadership. And today there are countless other examples of autocratic leadership in business &mdash; even Jack Welch adopted the same style.<br /><br />It appears that autocratic leadership still prevails &mdash; but how successful is it?<br /><br /><strong>What Is Autocratic Leadership?</strong><br />Autocratic leadership is a style of management that typically involves making important business decisions without the input of others. This usually prevails in military organizations where superiors are not challenged by subordinates. It may be justified when time is short and there is an element of secrecy involved in decision making. <br /><br />However, in many instances, employees feel suffocated working under autocratic leaders. Turnover and absenteeism may be very high. If anything goes wrong, leaders take the blame. The leader is the center of attention, unlike in democratic leadership where the group is the focus. These leaders may experience more problems as the power is concentrated in fewer hands. If anything goes wrong, the entire organization runs the risk of collapsing like a house of cards.<br /><br />However, while not suitable for many kinds of environments, this style may work in unskilled industries where there is less need for communication and creativity. And it can work in rare instances in other industries. For example, Martha Stewart was a successful autocratic leader who flourished in a competitive environment. Another example is that of Howell Raines, who was the executive editor of the New York Times from 2001 to 2003. But these are exceptions. The 21st century does not encourage this kind of leadership because employees expect to be treated as partners and collaborators. <br /><br />There are two types of autocratic leaders: directive autocrats, who make decisions unilaterally and closely supervise subordinates, and permissive autocrats, who make decisions unilaterally and give subordinates latitude in carrying out their work.<br /><br /><strong>Characteristics of Autocratic Leaders</strong><br />Autocratic leaders typically:<br /><br />&bull; Are task-oriented and are least concerned about people. <br /><br />&bull; Are the only decision-making authority.<br /><br />&bull; Limit arguments and attempt to solve problems without discussion and deliberation.<br /><br />&bull; Don&rsquo;t develop and groom their subordinates as leaders.<br /><br />&bull; Treat their followers as puppets and act themselves as puppeteers. <br /><br />&bull; Have big egos and are status-conscious. <br /><br />&bull; Expect others to follow them without questioning.<br /><br />Autocratic leadership can provide some of the structure and discipline required for any enterprise to survive and succeed. At times, it connects divergent people and brings cohesion. Further, it can be effective when employees are new and don&rsquo;t yet know how to perform their tasks, and it can be relevant when a high amount of production takes place regularly. It can be suitable when there is a time shortage.<br /><br /><strong>Challenges</strong><br />Autocratic leaders may cultivate weak management teams that may not be able to live up to organizational challenges. They don&rsquo;t groom their successors and do not line up a leadership pipeline. Further, there&rsquo;s likely to be intra-office politicking since autocratic leaders don&rsquo;t promote transparency and discussion.<br /><br />Further, the personality traits associated with autocratic leaders may be difficult to manage. For example, autocratic leaders typically like to be surrounded by &ldquo;yes men.&rdquo; They don&rsquo;t appreciate discussion &mdash; especially when there&rsquo;s dissent. Ultimately, they are loners. And there likely won&rsquo;t be anyone else to help them celebrate their success after an accomplishment, which could result in frustration or unrealistic drive. <br /><br />That said, every leader will have his or her own style and quirks. Autocratic leadership is dying as a management style, but it still exists and in some cases can still be relevant. It&rsquo;s important to assess your company and its leaders and determine the best course of action for your organization. <br /><br />You cannot expect all leaders to be alike. Such is the case with autocratic leaders. Although autocratic leadership is gradually fading away, it is still relevant in certain aspects. </p>
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