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BusinessAutocratic Leadership: Definition, Examples, and Implementation

August 6, 2018

For those of us that are used to the democratic way of leadership, both at the micro and at the macro levels, it is unlikely that we’ve ever given much thought to other forms of leadership prevalent in the world in many forms. Among the many systems of governance, an autocracy is one of the most extreme methods. Read on to find out more about the definition and examples of autocratic leadership, and the ways in which it can be implemented.

What Is Autocratic Leadership?

The term ‘autocratic’ is derived from the Greek words ‘auto’ and ‘cratic,’ which roughly translate to ‘ruling by oneself.’ In an autocracy, the decision-making process starts and ends with the leader. The leader neither delegates authority nor involves any subordinates in the process. Therefore, the leader has absolute authority and responsibility concerning decision-making.

The entire essence of autocratic leadership can be summed up using the famous idiom “My way or the highway.” While this type of leadership may seem a little harsh, the bottom line is that it works in certain conditions. This is the reason why autocratic leadership is still very prevalent despite the fact that it is one of the least popular styles of leadership.

Characteristics of an Autocracy

An autocracy has certain characteristics, apart from the ones mentioned above. Some of them are:

  • Distrust – An autocratic leader generally distrusts his subordinates and resorts to closely supervising and micromanaging their activities
  • Limited Communication – An autocratic leader discourages two-way communication by not giving his subordinates a chance to voice their opinions or ideas
  • Fear – By issuing threats and punishments, an autocratic leader utilizes fear instead of empowerment to motivate employees
  • Focus on Rules – An autocratic leader focuses heavily on rules, thereby deterring creative and out-of-the-box thinking. This makes the work environment extremely inflexible.

History Of Autocracy

Autocratic leadership is by no means a new concept. It has been in existence in one form or the other since time immemorial. Some historical leaders who adopted autocracy, like Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, turned out to be dictators and oppressors. On the contrary, other leaders used the system of an autocracy to reform industries and societies by bringing about technological and progressive advancements.

The most popular example is Henry Ford, who, through his autocracy, popularized the use of automobiles and consequently created thousands of jobs. Another example is the Roman Empire, where the rulers took on autocratic roles, held absolute power, and took decisions independently without seeking the opinions of the masses. This ultimately led to the rise of the Roman empire into an undisputed political and military superpower.

Autocracies in Modern Times

Over time, due to many unfortunate historical events, autocratic leadership has garnered tons of negative criticism and is looked down upon for its characteristic of not involving the people in the decision-making process. The negative views, however, did not stop people from adopting this type of leadership. Sure, autocratic leadership may not have a place in the way countries or states are run anymore, but it still is widely used in the corporate and business world.

The autocratic style of leadership is well-suited for most businesses, provided they are already well-established. This is because established businesses have the freedom to experiment and introduce an autocracy to improve the efficiencies of various departments.

Examples of an Autocracy

At any given point in history, autocratic leadership has been observed to manifest in one of three forms. These are directing autocracy, permissive autocracy, and paternal autocracy. Directing autocracy is the most widely observed form of autocratic governance. Here, all control rests with the leader who exercises absolute authority over the functioning of the system. In a permissive autocracy, the mechanisms are a bit more liberal.

Here, the people in the system enjoy the option of making small and insignificant decisions, while the leader remains the authority for the final decision on all important issues. In a paternal autocracy, as the name signifies, the leader is concerned about the well-being of the subjects. So, while the element of the ultimate authority of the leader remains undisputed, a paternal autocratic system also seeks to ensure that the people in the state are satisfied.

Explained below are more features of these three styles of autocracy, along with some examples.


Directing an Autocracy

This is the most rigid and unforgiving way of leadership. Here, the leader is completely distrusting of his subordinates and keeps a close watch on them. An example of a directing autocratic system is the armed forces unit where the leadership style adopted by commanders of the armed forces is usually absolute and undisputed.

Another example of directing autocratic governance is the North Korean government led by Kim Jong-un, where he exercises complete command over the decision-making process and the implementation of decisions.


Permissive Autocracy

Here, the leader has the final say in the decision-making process but allows his subordinates a little freedom in deciding the way the tasks should be performed. An example of a permissive autocratic system is a business enterprise where the CEO is in charge of making the decisions but allows the subordinates to choose the way the tasks allotted to them should be performed.

Another example is the hierarchy in a publishing house, where the editor-in-chief and the publisher enjoy the ultimate authority about deciding the kind of content that is published, but the writers and creative experts have the freedom to develop the content within the given framework as they deem fit.


Paternalistic Autocracy

The leader keeps the core of an autocracy intact but offsets it with concern over the moral and happiness of the subordinates. An example of paternalistic autocracies is a school where the teacher holds complete control over the decisions being made but is also concerned about the well-being of the students. Another example is a typical family system, where although the parents have the final say on most decisions, they ensure that every choice is directed toward the welfare of their children.

How to Implement an Autocracy?

Even though an autocracy has its cons, it can still be successful if it is implemented in the right manner and under the right circumstances. Typically, this style of leadership is best used in small groups where the people’s views and opinions can get in the way of the task at hand if not directed properly. It can also be successful in critical conditions such as tight deadlines and emergencies. In such situations, having an autocratic leader in charge can help the people in the group focus on specific tasks without having to worry about making all the decisions.

Here are some guidelines that can help implement an autocracy and make it work.

Respect for the Team

By now, it is a well-established fact that autorcratic leadership is inflexible. But that should not deter the leader from acknowledging the team’s inputs. When a leader exhibits fairness and values the work put in, he shows that he respects the team and their hard work. This defuses any resentment or discord in the workplace, keeps the morale high, and fosters mutual respect which is important in the long run. Also, rewarding the team for their successes will help motivate them to do better.

Open Channels of Communication

Employees know that in an autocratic environment, they are required to follow the orders and are disallowed from giving input to decisions. By keeping communication active between the leader and the subordinates, the details and rules can be conveyed with clarity. This also helps them feel at ease and makes them more likely to cooperate and not feel demoralized. Also, communicating about any changes before they happen gives the subordinates enough time to adjust, thereby preventing confusion.

Freedom to Express Opinions

expressing opinions - Autocratic Leadership: Definition, Examples, and Implementation

People value the freedom of expression higher than the acceptance of their views. A leader, whether he accepts and adopts the ideas of subordinates or not, should create an environment where the staff is encouraged to put forth their opinions and ideas. Employees should be able to ask questions freely and voice their concerns without the fear of being shut down. This will eventually be a valuable component of successful an autocracy.

Fair and Unbiased System

Subordinates generally tend to trust and respect a leader who is just, unbiased, and fair. Treating everyone equally and consistently goes a long way in eliminating the distrust that commonly builds over time in an autocratic environment. It also helps in portraying the leader as someone who is reliable and consistent.


While an autocratic system may have its own set of disadvantages, just like every other form of governance, it is important to remember that given the right set of circumstances, autocratic leadership can pave way for progress and growth. Autocracy that translates to tyranny is never a good idea. But in today’s world, autocracy as a form of governance does have its place, especially in the micro levels.

To ensure that an autocracy is successful, the finest elements of this style of governance, like strong leadership, unwavering decisions, and the ability to tackle stressful situations, are handpicked and implemented.

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