Does autocratic leadership work best?

In world politics, leaders with autocratic shades have seen a surge in popularity over the last few years. From the USA, to Brazil, Philippines and India, there is a movement towards ‘strong and decisive’ leaders. This isn’t a comment on the quality of their decisions or their leadership. The only point being made is that leaders perceived as strong and with the ability to make quick and bold decisions are on the rise globally. 

So, has the preference for autocratic leaders in politics also spilled over to the corporate world? Well, prominent critiques of capitalism and the modern corporation are that they are inherently anti-democratic and hierarchical. And that’s been the situation for quite some time. There is a large bureaucratic organisation structure. Employees must do what they are told. In theory, at least, the communist style allowed much greater worker participation. 

Each modern corporation has leaders with their own unique type of leadership style. Let’s look at the two extremes. At one extreme is a fully autocratic leader and at the other is a purely consensus driven leader. At the autocratic extreme, employees are constantly reminded of who’s in charge. Employees are often given very precise instructions of what is required of them. The focus is on tasks and not outcomes. Deviations from tasks are not looked upon kindly. The leader gives directions — employees are expected to follow directions. 

At the other extreme, there are the consensus-driven, democratic or laissez faire leaders. Here, leaders take everyone’s views into consideration. And prefer everyone to be on the same page when making a decision. Or, in true laissez faire leadership style, assume that all decision-making should be delegated. Here, the leader doesn’t take any decisions but instead relies on decisions taken by subordinates. In other cases, these leaders treat decision making like an election process. The most popular decision is the one that is taken. 

So, what type of leadership works best in the corporate environment? What’s the best middle path between an autocratic and a consensus-driven type of leadership? Undoubtedly, what works well is a style which tends more towards autocracy, than consensus. Employees like to follow strong leaders. Humans have a natural propensity to want to be led by people with vision, conviction and good values. Autocratic leadership has a lot more going for it. Quick decision making and clear directions translates to less confused employees. Motivation increases when an employee knows the vision of a company and the role of their work in meeting that vision.

Would an employee rather be in a bus where everyone must give their views on their preferred destination? And the bus leaves only when everyone agrees on the destination? Or in a bus where the destination is known in advance? And the route to get to that destination is laid out? Wouldn’t an employee prefer that bus? The latter bus represents an organization with a decisive leader. A leader with a vision and strategy to get there which s/he shares with the employees. 

Yet, being autocratic doesn’t mean being a dictator. There are multiple shades between a full autocrat and a leader who doesn’t do anything till his team agrees. Let’s call the best leadership shade an ‘enlightened autocrat’. Here are some the characteristics differentiating an ‘enlightened autocrat’ from a ‘dictator’. 

They don’t stop communicating

A leader needs to talk to share vision and strategy. Often, leaders assume that employees are fully aware of vision and strategy. Yet, its important that a leader keeps reinforcing the message. Besides making the vision and strategy clearer to employees, it can influence culture. A communicative leader fosters a culture where employees communicate with each other. 

More importantly,s/he still needs to listen to subordinates. That’s where a leader gets inputs which help make decisions. Talking to employees allows a leader to gain valuable insights into changing customer requirements, market conditions and competitor intelligence. Inputs from your employees are valuable if you choose to listen.

Respect the subordinate 

Being an enlightened autocratdoesn’t mean subordinates shouldn’t be respected. If you don’t respect them, employees won’t be happy. You won’t rule long, or the business won’t meet potential if employees are unhappy. Besides, mutual respect makes for a much more pleasant environment. It pays to be nice. And remember that tough and nice don’t have to be incompatible. You need to follow two rules when being ‘nice’. First, know the difference between being nice and not being assertive. Great leaders let people know when somethings wrong. They know what they want, and they don’t hesitate to tell people about it. Two, being nice doesn’t mean saying yes to everything. Boundaries need to be set for everything- when people can approach you, how much time you give and choosing how to help a person who asks.

Inform and educate before enforcing

Hard decisions need to be taken. Often, the quicker the better. Yet, everyone deserves to know about the decision and the reasons behind it. If the bus has an unscheduled halt or a change in destination, let everyone know beforehand. Inform your employees for the reasons of the course correction.

Don’t think you’re God

I once had a boss who used to warn us against ‘swimming in our own exhaust’. While not a typical turn of words, it somehow got the message across. Don’t get so enamoured by your decision making, that you think it’s always the only way. You still need to delegate. You still need your employees to use their brains. They shouldn’t fear making decisions. There are only so many things you can do at once. And you can’t be at all places all the time. 

Have a heart

Reason is a hallmark of any autocratic leader. Yet, it can’t be the sole driver of everything. Enlightened autocrats understand that all decisions can’t be based on what their brain tells them. And that it often helps to use their heart while making decisions. 

Closing thoughts

Being an ‘enlightened autocrat’ sounds quite scary. For most part, its not. The only scary part is the decision-making. Often, consensus-driven leaders are that way because making decisions scares them. They think of the consequences of a wrong decision.And feel that if the decision was taken by consensus, then everyone is to blame if something goes wrong. Sometimes it’s just cognitive miserliness. We just don’t like using our brains sometimes. Yet, being decisive is a critical part of being a great leader. 

Finally, don’t think being an ‘enlightened autocrat’ means only you make decisions. It means you take charge of decisions you should be making. And let people know which decisions they need to make. All great leaders have a balance between strong leadership, autonomy and empowerment of employees.