Autocratic leadership: Definition, features & examples

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
Updated July 1, 2024

Autocratic leadership has a bad name—and with good reason. As the opposite of democratic leadership, most people associate “autocracy” with suppression and subjection.  

However, confident, assertive, and univocal leadership can often be useful in business. As situational leadership teaches us, “telling” and “guiding” have their place in the toolkit of an effective leadership team. In other words, effective leaders should be able to behave in an authoritarian way. 

This article will explain how autocratic leadership can be a useful tool. It will: 

  • Define autocratic leadership (also known as authoritarian leadership) 
  • Introduce the main features of autocratic leadership 
  • Explain the benefits and challenges of autocratic leadership  

At the end of the article, we will briefly reflect on the role of autocratic leadership in today’s workplaces. Managers with a purely autocratic leadership vision will be unlikely to succeed. 

However, those who give clear directions as part of an ethical leadership program will achieve great results. 

What is autocratic leadership? 

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When a manager adopts an autocratic leadership style, they make all decisions for the team on their own. Team members do not give input on team decisions and know they must follow the manager’s orders without question. 

There are many legitimate uses for autocratic leadership, even today. 

Nonetheless, many people feel negative about this style of leadership. They might use words like “authoritarian,” “dictatorial,” or “tyrannical” to describe it. In practice, some autocratic leaders use punishment, threats, bullying, criticism, and excessive reprimands – even when employees are (rightly) protected from such treatment by law. 

In today’s business world, very few people would tolerate this kind of treatment, which constitutes a form of “fake leadership,” as Bieńkowska and Tworek call it in their 2023 book. 

So-called “leaders” are far more interested in furthering their goals than helping the organization. 

Autocratic leadership theories 

Several theories have explained the value of autocratic leadership over the past hundred years. They include the following: 

Theory X 

In The Human Side of Enterprise (1960), Douglas McGregor called this the “theory x” form of management. He pointed out that autocratic styles could help meet some of the staff’s basic needs, even though a “theory y” approach was more appropriate for the modern age. 

Coercive leadership 

A landmark HBR article by Daniel Goleman called this the “coercive” style and advised that leaders should use it very rarely. 

Situational leadership 

Hersey and Blanchard’s influential theories of situational leadership explain how authoritarian approaches can be useful. Faced with “unwilling” staff, leaders may need to adopt more directional methods. They call this “task behavior,” in which leaders do not try to build relationships. 

This article assumes that today’s leaders want to achieve positive employee engagement. However, we will reflect on some of the downsides of autocratic leaders. 

What are the main features of autocratic leadership? 

The key feature of autocratic leadership is the absence of staff involvement in major decisions. In practice, that one feature has many implications. 

Organizations are complex and multifaceted. So, an effective autocratic leader must know everything about the company. 

Three of the major elements of autocratic leadership are: 

Centralized project decision-making 

Centralized project decision-making is a hallmark of autocratic leadership. The leader holds sole authority to make significant decisions without consulting team members. This means the leader makes all important project, strategy, and task choices. They do not need to create a consensus among their team. 

This approach can lead to quick decision-making and clear direction in some scenarios. However, it could also stifle innovation and decrease morale among team members who feel disempowered and undervalued. 

Roles and tasks assigned by the leader 

Under autocratic leadership, not just the “big picture” is under the leader’s control. The leaders also have full responsibility for workload allocation. They assign tasks to individuals without their input or negotiation. 

This may be effective when team members share a core skillset or when the major tasks on the project are largely similar. On the other hand, if the leader possesses deep expertise or knowledge about the project and the team members’ skills, they may make informed decisions that effectively leverage each team member’s strengths. 

While centralized task assignment streamlines operations in the short term, it may ultimately limit long-term team effectiveness. 

Only leaders see the whole process 

In democratic teams, all staff will know about the broader process they’re working on. By contrast, in autocratically run teams, only the leader knows about strategic information, project plans, and overall vision. Team members are typically only aware of their specific tasks and immediate goals.

This characteristic feels very strange to anyone who’s worked as a valued team member. But this aspect is easy to imagine if you think of manufacturing. Imagine a bike manufacturing factory organized around an assembly line. Each person contributes a small feature to the finished product, but only the people at the end of the line will see it. 

This feature can be useful in situations where confidentiality and control are important. Keeping the full scope of the project confined to leadership reduces the risk of information mismanagement and helps maintain a unified direction. 

However, it also has drawbacks. If unpredictable events are ahead, workers may experience a disproportionate level of anxiety. Indeed, if they don’t know what they’re aiming at, employees may feel disconnected from the larger mission of the organization. 

Examples of autocratic leadership in action 

There are many famous examples of autocratic leaders. Charles I of England, Napoleon, Hitler, and Kim Jong-Il are just the start of a list of some of the most unpleasant leaders in history. 

Similarly, many people recognize modern-day examples of autocracy working well. These include emergency response teams, restaurant kitchens, and teachers in classrooms. 

By contrast, this section will explain examples of autocratic leadership from the business world. 

These situations are very different from tyrants or life-or-death crises. However, they nonetheless prove just how useful direct leadership can be. They are:

Major turnaround projects  

In a large business, a “turnaround” refers to returning a struggling company to financial health. Turnarounds can be a highly unsettling and challenging type of organizational change

During these near-crisis situations, the stakes are high, with the potential for widespread job losses and significant stakeholder dissatisfaction. Leaders can start to lead the company to better days through autocratic methods: imposing strict controls over spending, centralizing decision-making, and implementing rapid changes. For a short while, any kind of democratic involvement might be too difficult. 

As KPMG’s 2024 advice on turnarounds highlights, using a single leader to make key financial decisions can be crucial. This concentrated control ensures swift action and prevents delays arising from consensus-based decision-making processes. The autocratic approach achieves stability in the short term before returning to a more democratic climate once the company is back on track.

Time-sensitive projects 

Time-sensitive projects vary a lot across industries. They may include product launches, event deadlines, financial reporting, compliance deadlines, event planning, and contract bids. 

These tasks have one thing in common: urgency. The consequences of failure can be severe, including financial loss, damage to reputation, and wasted resources.

As major deadlines approach, autocratic leadership becomes effective. For a brief period, staff can greatly benefit from receiving clear, direct, and specific instructions from a single leader. 

This approach eliminates the burden of decision-making for team members, allowing them to focus entirely on their tasks and work more efficiently. The leader gives unambiguous guidance that ensures everyone stays aligned while the project progresses swiftly.

Autocratic leadership helps manage urgent projects effectively, maximizing productivity and minimizing the risk of delays or miscommunication.

Major change initiatives

Autocratic leadership techniques can be valuable in major change initiatives, such as implementing new systems, undergoing digital transformation, restructuring, or shifting company strategy. Companies can also benefit significantly from autocratic leadership. 

Employees need more support and direction to adapt when introducing a new approach. It’s like learning an instrument or getting oriented in a gym: people have to understand the basics before they can work independently. 

In these scenarios, a leader who provides clear, decisive guidance can help the organization navigate the transition smoothly. By making critical decisions unilaterally, the leader can reduce confusion, ensure consistency, and maintain momentum. 

This concentrated control is crucial in the early stages when employees still acclimate to the new processes and may not have the confidence or knowledge to act independently.

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What are the benefits of autocratic leadership? 

It’s surprisingly hard to prove the impact of a leadership style on organizational performance. Even In a classic article by the change management theorist Kurt Lewin, the researchers found it difficult to see a consistent pattern between autocracy and aggression

Nonetheless, contemporary researchers like Wang and Guan 2018 have demonstrated some of the moments where autocratic leadership has a directly beneficial impact on group performance. 

This section will examine three clear benefits of autocratic leadership for organizational life. 

If you need to see these features in your organization, maybe autocratic leadership will help. They are:

Streamlined processes 

When leaders possess deep knowledge of tasks and team members, their autocratic leadership can support efficient processes throughout operations. They can make decisions without extensive consultation and expedite the execution of complex operations.  

However, autocratic leadership’s effectiveness here depends on the leader’s knowledge, competence, and ability to make informed decisions. Autocratic decision-making could worsen the situation if your leader doesn’t possess these qualities. 


Direct instructions are among the most useful things autocratic leadership offers. One benefit of this direction is the clarity it imparts. In environments where gossip and rumors can sow confusion and derail progress, autocratic leadership ensures everyone understands their roles, responsibilities, and expectations.

Team members will know exactly where they stand and what their managers expect. Staff can address any uncertainties about the organization’s direction directly to the leader. Thus, teams can avoid confusion and misunderstanding. 

Autocratic leaders empower their teams to work efficiently and effectively towards shared goals by removing uncertainty and providing a clear path forward.

Group stability 

Clear roles, hierarchies, and expectations within an organization support the stability of the overall group. Autocratic leaders are well-placed to promote these qualities. In autocratic environments, everyone knows their place and responsibilities, reducing confusion and minimizing conflicts over authority.

By maintaining a structured hierarchy, with clear roles for each team member, autocratic leaders ensure that individuals focus on their assigned tasks. This clarity helps to prevent interpersonal conflicts.

There are downsides, and these stable groups won’t foster open collaboration or innovation (unlike democratic leadership). Nonetheless, they provide a stable framework within which teams can operate efficiently, free from the uncertainty of less structured environments.

What are the challenges of autocratic leadership?  

Many people associate autocratic leadership with negative work experiences. Employees are almost inevitably upset when egocentric managers rule with an iron fist.  

Even for leaders who use autocratic leadership appropriately, there are some downsides.

If you’re thinking about applying autocratic principles, it’s worth considering these risks. This section will look at three common challenges: 

Negative staff behaviors 

Let’s assume that staff members join an organization feeling motivated, happy, and ready to contribute. Their attitudes can quickly change when they are confronted with autocratic leaders. When employees have no input in decision-making, they may display a range of negative behaviors.

One potential outcome is aggression. Staff can become upset and aggressive, not only with the leadership but also with each other. However, autocratic leadership can also lead to apathy among employees. When workers feel their input doesn’t matter and they have no stake in the outcomes, their motivation can plummet.

While autocratic leadership can provide clarity and direction, it risks generating negative behaviors that create a toxic work environment.

Lack of innovation 

Under an autocratic leader, rank-and-file staff cannot contribute their ideas. In a work environment where new ideas are not encouraged or valued, employees are not incentivized to take the initiative or propose innovative solutions.

This leadership style can lead to a stagnant organizational culture focused on maintaining the status quo. Employees may feel discouraged from thinking outside the box, and as a result, the organization may miss out on valuable insights and advancements that could drive growth and improvement.

Even in a high-pressure situation, there are still great opportunities to perform tasks more quickly, efficiently, and effectively. Leaders who insist on autocratic leadership can miss out on many important ideas. 

Limits team building 

Finally, autocratic leaders often stifle collaboration and team spirit. Team members may become more focused on adhering to directives and avoiding mistakes rather than working together and supporting one another. This can create a negatively competitive atmosphere, undermining the potential for effective teamwork and workplace harmony.

Can autocratic leadership work today? 

Over the past hundred years, many writers have considered the value of autocratic leadership. And chances are, there’ll still be talking about it in another hundred years. Indeed, in 2018, Harms and others argued that more people need to take the topic seriously. 

One thing is certain: authoritarian leadership is not in fashion. 

An older generation of academics saw a lot more potential in autocratic leadership. But even by the year 2000, a writer like Daniel Goleman advised that this approach “should be used only with extreme caution and in the few situations where it is absolutely imperative.” 

More recently, Gale Avery’s agenda-setting book Understanding Leadership (2009) consigns authoritarian leaders to the dustbin of history. Today, a networked, democratic, and eclectic model of “organic” leadership has become the norm in post-industrial countries. This model is truer than ever in the post-COVID era of hybrid and remote working. 
To conclude, everyone should learn about autocratic leadership in all leadership development training programs.  But they must also learn to apply with profound wisdom or risk negative consequences.

WalkMe Team
By WalkMe Team
WalkMe pioneered the Digital Adoption Platform (DAP) for organizations to utilize the full potential of their digital assets. Using artificial intelligence, machine learning and contextual guidance, WalkMe adds a dynamic user interface layer to raise the digital literacy of all users.