What is an Autocracy?

Definition: Autocracy is a system of government in which one single person has the entire power. The term applies to structures where an individual holds the authority and supremacy to make all decisions without restrictions.

What Does Autocracy Mean?

Although autocracy is primarily a political concept, the word can also be used in other contexts. In business, autocracy exists when top leader’s decisions are not checked and balanced by any other person, committee or institution. The function of monitoring performances and results of all subordinates is entirely centralized in the autocrat leader. The leader does not ask for opinions but simply gives orders and take decisions. Autocracy is the most effective system if employees are very inexperienced or when work must be done in an inflexible time. On the other hand, autocracy restricts the achievement of complex and challenging goals in the long term.

This happens because the system hinders innovation and motivation. All decisions are taken or controlled by the leader and there are no structured mechanisms to propose constructive ideas from the bottom to the top. In this environment, well-trained, capable professionals tend to feel underappreciated. Autocracies face poor organizational climate and high turnover rates since the most talented employees commonly quit.

Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style characterized by individual control over all decisions and little input from group members. Autocratic leaders typically make choices based on their ideas and judgments and rarely accept advice from followers. Autocratic leadership involves absolute, authoritarian control over a group.

Like other leadership styles, the autocratic style has both some benefits and some weaknesses. While those who rely on this approach to heavily are often seen as bossy or dictator-like, this level of control can have benefits and be useful in certain situations. When and where the authoritarian style is most useful can depend on factors such as the situation, the type of task the group is working on, and characteristics of the team members.

If you tend to utilize this type of leadership with a group, learning more about your style and the situations in which this style is the most effective can be helpful.


Laner Corp is a successful company founded by Michael Laner five years ago. The firm produces and innovative line of home furniture that offers easy assembly and low prices. It distributes its popular items to four stores located in Laner’s native city. The founder and only owner is the General Manager and also a natural autocrat that wants everybody to do exactly what he says. His closest team is a group of loyal managers that are not invited to participate neither in relevant analysis nor strategic decisions.

Laner envisioned opportunities in other cities and also in other furniture products but it was impossible for him to do all the required complex work on his own. Laner therefore asked help from an organizational consultant who recommended a change of leadership style. Laner slowly adopted a more decentralized structure and thus managers were able to propose and implement valuable ideas. After four years, the company reached new cities and expanded significantly the product portfolio.

Characteristics of Autocratic Leadership

Some of the primary characteristics of autocratic leadership include:

  • Little or no input from group members
  • Leaders make almost all of the decisions
  • Group leaders dictate all the work methods and processes
  • Group members are rarely trusted with decisions or important tasks
  • Work tends to be highly structured and very rigid
  • Creativity and out-of-the box thinking tend to be discouraged
  • Rules are important and tend to be clearly outlined and communicated

Directive Autocrats

A directive autocrat is a manager who makes decision unilaterally and without the consent of his employees. He closely supervises the work of his subordinates in order to make sure that the tasks he has imposed are being completed. Such a directive autocrat might consider the workforce he has and the potential of further development by observing his subordinates, but would not inquire about their views on any further business activity.

Permissive Autocrats

The permissive autocrats again make decisions without inquiring about the opinions of subordinates. However, such managers leave some discretion to their employees as to the means through which a task can be achieved. This is a more democratic concept of the autocratic management style. It favors some extent of decision-making among the subordinates and might contribute to a more successful relationship between leaders and employees.

Autocratic Leadership Style Requirements

Autocratic leaders typically make all major decisions on their own, with little or no input from others. Extreme authoritarian leaders often insist on making even minor decisions.

Leaders needing to control minute tasks often are derided as micromanagers. Although the military traditionally encourages superiors to make unchallenged decisions, civilian organizations may not respond to this leadership style much longer.

The first formal study of leadership, including the autocratic style, is credited to Kurt Lewin and others in an article that appeared in the “American Journal of Sociology” in the 1930s. Lewin and his colleagues found autocratic leaders:

  • Generally do not solicit or accept input from others for decision-making purposes
  • Make all company or group decisions
  • Mandate all workplace methods, policies and procedures
  • Can exhibit a lack of trust in the advice, suggestions, ideas and decision-making ability of others
  • Autocratic leadership has pluses and minuses. The prevailing view is that the style depends on the ability of one person while disregarding the input of other skilled people. Still, many workplaces can benefit from autocratic leadership.

Who works well under autocratic leaders?

Individuals who march to the beat of their own drum generally don’t work well under autocratic leaders.

By comparison, people who can successfully lead a couple dozen diverse, figurative drummers to stay in sync and keep rhythm without missing a beat make excellent autocratic leaders.

How to leverage the autocratic style to manage successfully

After centuries as the standard management style, autocratic leadership can still succeed in the contemporary arena if leaders keep the following in mind:

  • Respect subordinates. Exhibit fairness, objectivity and show respect for co-workers. They will see or feel it. Leaders’ respect for others engenders mutual respect, which helps defuse workplace discord.
  • Communicate and explain. Most employees realize autocratic leaders expect them to obey rules and follow procedures. Communicating details helps staff understand the rules. In turn, they are less likely to rebel and more likely to cooperate.
  • Practice consistency. Employees respect fairness and unbiased treatment. In light of the potential distrust that autocratic leadership may foster, treating all staff consistently generates trust and earns respect.
  • Allow opinions. Encourage staff to express themselves. Permitting employees to offer suggestions is a valuable component of success among autocratic leaders. Even if ideas aren’t adopted, people appreciate the freedom to share their thoughts.

Positive Effects

Professor Jacqueline C. Mancall, specialist in the psychology of leadership, explains that autocratic managers have the power to control a confident business structure. If properly exercised by a skillful manager, this management style might contribute to successfully running a business because the less control people have over the decision-making process, the less likely it is for fraud to occur in a business structure.

Negative Effects

Autocratic management has been a subject by severe criticism by management specialists such as Derek Breton. He explains that such leaders are over-confident and likely to make the wrong decisions because they have no respect for the opinion of their subordinates. In a rapidly evolving market environment, managers need to take into account of the expertise of skillful subordinates and thus make the best decision for the company. Autocratic managers lead business activities according to their own considerations and often ignore the expertise of their employees.