Autocratic Leadership

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

AutocraticLeadershipConcept description

Kendra Cherry (reference below) defines autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, as a leadership style characterized by individual control over all decisions and little input from group members.

Cherry states:

“Autocratic leaders typically make choices based on their own ideas and judgments and rarely accept advice from followers. Autocratic leadership involves absolute, authoritarian control over a group. …

“Some of the primary characteristics of autocratic leadership include:

  • Little or no input from group members
  • Leaders make the decisions
  • Group leaders dictate all the work methods and processes
  • Group members are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks.”
Downsides of autocratic leadership

Cherry writes:

“While autocratic leadership can be beneficial at times, there are also many instances where this leadership style can be problematic. People who abuse an autocratic leadership style are often viewed as bossy, controlling, and dictatorial, which can lead to resentment among group members.

“Because autocratic leaders make decisions without consulting the group, people in the group may dislike that they are unable to contribute ideas. Researchers have also found that autocratic leadership often results in a lack of creative solutions to problems, which can ultimately hurt the performance of the group.”

Positive autocratic leadership

In a 2017 book entitled Open Source Leadership, Rajeev Peshawaria makes the case for “positive autocratic leadership” arguing that autocratic leadership better serves many organizations than many people think. Peshawaria, who was chief learning officer of both Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley before turning to executive coaching and consulting, writes in Forbes (reference below):

“In modern democratic societies, we naturally valorize shared decision-making. It just seems like a self-evident truth that it is better to involve everyone in a decision process, especially when that decision affects everyone in the group.

“But is it?

“Is it alsways better to use group processes, rather than to find the right person who can make the right decision, and allow them to make the decision that will be made for the group?

“Clearly, if we are being honest and rational, we must admit that there are situations – probably many situations – where giving one person unfettered power to make a decision for others is a better option.”

Harvey Schachter (reference below) summarizes the argument in Peshawaria’s book as follows:

“He starts with an inconvenient truth: We have idealized democratic and all-inclusive leadership far too much, when the need is for autocratic, top-down management. …

“Even Mandela and Gandhi were autocratic … But autocratic leaders are naked in the modern era. And their followers subscribe to notions of democracy and empowerment. So a balance is required, which he delineates in five keys to positive autocratic leadership:

  • Earn the right to use autocratic leadership: You need to develop a vision of a better future and positive values to get there that you embrace, even in the bad times.
  • Be autocratic about values and purpose while remaining humble, respectful and considerate with people.
  • Provide freedom within a framework: This idea flows from his work with Coke’s CEO Neville Isdell, who realized that to be effective, he needed to end the centralized command and control approach. He set out key values and told leaders in various countries they had maximum freedom within those. Mr. Peshawaria says that as companies become bigger and more bureaucratic, they need to expand the ability for people to move beyond the letter of the law to acting by the spirit of the law.
  • Listen, learn and reflect continuously: Avoid tunnel vision. Things will always change and you need to adapt.
  • Forgive more often: Holding grudges and anger pulls you down. Blaming people for failure reduces innovation. When people take reasonable risks and don’t succeed, forgive.

“As well, you need to change your approach to managing performance.

  • First, give up the notion each employee should be given stretch goals, nudging them to go “above and beyond.” Pareto’s 80/20 rule [see Power Laws, Pareto Distributions, and Performance] says 20 per cent of your team provide 80 per cent of your performance – so focus on stretching the folks with the top creativity and energy rather than everyone. That doesn’t mean giving up on the other 80 per cent, however, since they support your movers and shakers.
  • Second, discard the notion that managers motivate employees. His survey suggests it isn’t true: Asked whether their manager motivates them or they are self-motivated, 69 per cent said themselves (73 per cent in Canada). So managers need to find out what motivates each staff member and see how to align that with elements of the work – what can turn on the person’s passion and what will turn it off. …
  • Finally, he urges you to ditch engagement surveys or at least modify them because they are deceiving you. Since the results average out all employees’ responses, you aren’t giving proper focus to your critical 20 per cent, who may have even been too busy to respond. If you must conduct an engagement study, arrange it so you know what those critical few feel. It adds up to big changes in your leadership, as you transform into a Naked Autocrat operating in a world of freedom.”

Cherry draws a somewhat similar conclusion:

“While autocratic leadership does have some potential pitfalls, leaders can learn to use elements of this style wisely. For example, an autocratic style can be used effectively in situations where the leader is the most knowledgeable member of the group or has access to information that other members of the group do not.”

See also: Participative Leadership; Laissez-Faire Leadership.


Kendra Cherry (2017), What is Autocratic Leadership, VeryWell, at at, accessed 6 November 2017.

Rajeev Peshawaria (2017), Is Consensus Always a Good Thing? Forbes, 29 October 2017, at, accessed 6 November 2017.

Harvey Schachter (2017), Autocratic leadership works if you follow these five guidelines, Globe and Mail, 6 November 2017, at, accessed 6 November 2017.

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Leadership and Communication (core topic) in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 6 November 2017.

Image: From Bright Hub Project Management at, accessed 30 December 2015.