Autocratic Leadership: New Data Reveals Who Likes It

Autocratic leadership (also referred to as authoritarian leadership) is a leadership style in which the leader tells employees exactly how they would like tasks/projects to be performed and the leader retains final decision making authority. The autocratic leader doesn’t solicit much input from the team, nor do employees have much freedom to choose how to perform their work (let alone to choose the tasks or projects themselves). Autocratic leadership is highly directive and structured, and is not especially participative, democratic or warm.

Given the definition of autocratic leadership, it’s fair to question whether anyone would enjoy working for an autocratic leader. Even hearing the words ‘autocratic leadership’ sends shivers down many employees’ spines. But a new study reveals that, while autocratic leadership is often disparaged, certain personality types do respond well to this style of leadership.

Autocratic Leadership: New Data Reveals Who Likes It

Leadership IQ surveyed 14,033 people about the style of their ideal leader, and further assessed respondents on several dozen personality characteristics, to assess whether certain types of people actually desired, and responded well to, autocratic leadership.

To assess how much people liked autocratic leadership, we asked them to rate two questions that represent an autocratic style:

  • My ideal leader always retains the final decision making authority within the department.
  • My ideal leader tells employees exactly how they would like tasks/projects to be performed.

As you can see in the first chart, a small minority of people really want a leader who always retains the final decision making authority within the department. This ‘command and control’ decision-making process is generally less desired in today’s world than democratic leadership, participative leadership or transformational leadership.

autocratic leadership bar chart

It’s important to note, however, that about 21% of employees do see benefits of autocratic leadership, and especially a leader taking such a strong role in making decisions.

As you see in the next chart, fewer people desire a leader who tells employees exactly how they would like tasks/projects to be performed. Concepts like job autonomy, job crafting and intrinsic motivation are more desired and popular in today’s workplaces than highly directive leadership styles.

autocratic leadership

But again, it should be noted that about 11% of people really do want a leader to tell them exactly how to perform their work.

Typically when the pros and cons of autocratic leadership are discussed, the disadvantages of autocratic leadership take priority. We’ll get examples of autocratic leaders like Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, and Napoleon Bonaparte, and hear how autocratic leadership ruins employee morale. And if the benefits of autocratic leadership are discussed, it’s typically some version of ‘strong leadership is necessary when the building’s on fire and there’s an urgent crisis.’

While the dangers of autocratic leadership and authoritarian leadership are very real, and autocratic leadership examples can be terrifying, it’s an oversimplification to say that they’re universally harmful to the workplace. Because as you’re about to see, certain personality types actually like autocratic leadership.

Personality Types That Respond To Autocratic Leadership

Out of more than two dozen personality characteristics assessed, we identified seven characteristics that were positively correlated with idealizing autocratic leadership.

People who idealize autocratic leadership believe that people should do what they’re told and follow the rules. They also believe that, in general, people should be satisfied with the status quo and not ask for more than what they have. This is consistent with the autocratic leader’s tendency to tightly hold authority, whether in a decision-making process, directing tasks, etc.

Followers of autocratic leadership are also more cautious than followers of other leadership styles. They are more likely to believe in the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t break it.” And, they’re more likely to adhere to the notion that it’s better to be safe than risk being sorry.

Given the autocratic leader’s emphasis on formal procedures, rules, and policies, and setting clear expectations, it’s no surprise that their followers tend to favor making decisions by way of careful, detailed analysis.

Finally, while there are people who love the adrenaline rush that comes from frequent and unexpected change, the people that idealize autocratic leadership definitely prefer consistency and routine.

Let’s take a deeper look at each of these personality characteristics. 

Personality Characteristic #1: Follow The Rules

If someone believes that people should do what they're told and follow the rules, they’re more likely to idealize an autocratic leader. In fact, the more that someone prioritizes the importance of rules, the more they’ll idealize autocratic leadership. The scatterplot below shows the positive relationship between these factors:

autocratic leadership

As you can see from the strong upward-sloping trend line, for people who believe that the world is better when people just follow the rules, autocratic leadership is actually fairly desirable. But for rules-breakers and those who enjoy a bit of disorder, autocratic leadership is likely to be incredibly painful.

Personality Characteristic #2: I Like Rules

Similar to the previous characteristic, the more someone likes having rules and detailed processes, the more they’re likely to embrace autocratic leadership.

autocratic leadership

Autocratic leadership does not encourage lots of freedom, messiness and disorder; it’s the opposite of democratic leadership or participative leadership. And while many will chafe in that environment, for those who enjoy the consistency and stability that rules and processes bring, autocratic leadership is actually desirable.

Personality Characteristic #3: Consistent Routines Are Good

One area where autocratic leadership (and authoritarian leadership) excels is creating consistency. Autocratic leadership may not be fun and lighthearted, but in general, ‘the trains run on time.’ So it makes sense that someone who enjoys having a consistent routine would be more likely to embrace autocratic leadership.

autocratic leadership

Now, just like consistent routines does not automatically mean that group members will love working for an autocratic leader. But it does mean that their employee morale will likely be higher in that scenario than someone who does not prize consistency in their routines.

Personality Characteristic #4: Play It Safe

An autocratic leader is more likely to use ‘carrots and sticks’ (aka rewards and punishments) than someone who practices transformational leadership, for example. So it’s no surprise that people who believe that it is better to be safe than risk being sorry would respond more favorably to autocratic leadership.

autocratic leadership

Bold, audacious risk-takers are not likely to enjoy a leader who always retain the final decision-making authority. But someone with a more cautious personality is less likely to see that as a problem.

Personality Characteristic #5: Don’t Break It

There is a strong strain of caution in autocratic leadership. Order and consistency are prized; chaos and ambiguity are not. We can see why someone who believes that ""if it ain't broke, don't break it" is more likely to respond positively to autocratic leadership.

autocratic leadership

Those who look for ‘sacred cows’ to tackle are unlikely to respond well to the autocrat. But for someone who likes to let ‘sleeping dogs lie,’ autocratic leadership could actually be desirable.

Personality Characteristic #6: Be Satisfied With What You Have

Autocratic leadership maintains a clear hierarchy and order. And if you’re not at the top of that hierarchy, you’re probably going to be unhappy if your personality doesn’t allow you to be comfortable not being at the top. When someone believes it's important not to ask for more than what you have and that people should be satisfied with what they have, they’re much more likely to accept their place in the hierarchy (and thus accept autocratic leadership).

autocratic leadership

While ambition is an often laudable characteristic, autocratic leadership won’t allow for that ambition to roam unbridled.

Personality Characteristic #7: Make Decisions Carefully

Given the autocratic leader’s emphasis on formal procedures, rules, and policies, and setting clear expectations, it’s no surprise that their followers tend to favor making decisions by way of careful, detailed analysis.

autocratic leadership

If someone uses careful, detailed analysis to make decisions, they’re more likely to have a personality that fits well within an autocratic environment.

Autocratic Leadership: This Is Not An Endorsement But A Call For Deeper Understanding Of Effective Leadership

Because more than 500,000 leaders have taken the online test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” we know that styles with autocratic leadership elements are preferred by a minority of leaders. And autocratic leadership is far less common today than it was when Kurt Lewin’s seminal 1939 study “Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates” distinguished between Autocratic, Democratic and Laissez-Faire leadership styles.

In Lewin’s study, he and his colleagues put groups of 10-year-old children successively under autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire leadership. Overall they found that while autocratic leadership could deliver increased productivity, followers of the autocratic leader could be joyless, frustrated and dependent. In one of their experiments, hostility was 30 times as frequent in the autocratic setting as it was under democratic leadership. And in some of their other experiments, participants under autocratic leadership showed extreme non-aggressive, apathetic behavior.

As shown in our study, autocratic leadership is not a commonly desired leadership style. In Lewin’s study, 19 out of 20 participants like their democratic leader better than their autocratic leader, and 7 out of 10 also liked their laissez faire leader better than their autocratic leader. And yet, some participants responded to leaders like the laissez-faire leader by saying "he was too easy-going"; "he had too few things for us to do"; "he let us figure things out too much".

And as we saw in this study, certain personality types do respond more favorably to autocratic leadership.; there are advantages and disadvantages.

Autocratic leadership might not be the ideal style to lead a company needs more innovation or better employee morale. Autocracy is likely to decrease, not increase, employee engagement. And autocratic leadership (or authoritarian leadership) is unlikely to improve collaboration, teamwork and creativity.

But with the right mix of personalities, autocratic leadership might deliver decent results when employees aren’t clear about what’s expected of them, or people have great ideas but poor execution, or when the trains just are not running on time.



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Posted by Mark Murphy on 23 November, 2019 about, Leadership Styles, no_cat, no_recent, sb_ad_21, sb_ad_22, sb_ad_6 | 0 comments
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