written by: N Nayab
• edited by: Jean Scheid
• updated: 5/18/2011
Autocratic leadership style, though unpopular, remains relevant in many situations. Examples of when to use autocratic leadership includes when the workforce displays Type X behavioral traits, when the nature of work or the situation warrants it, or as part of deliberate management strategy.
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Application of Autocratic Leadership Style Based on Nature of Workforce
The theoretical base of autocratic leadership style rests in Douglas McGregor’s Theory X. Theory X holds that workers are inherently lazy and naturally dislike working. In cases such as these, management needs to supervise the workers and monitor activities strictly to ensure that workers do not avoid completing their duties. It recommends a hierarchical structure with narrow span of control at all levels for this purpose.
An autocratic leadership style where the leader has complete authority and reserves the right to make decisions, and where the followers obey the instructions of the leader without question, remains ideally suited for workers with a Theory X type of orientation.
McGregor’s Theory Y runs opposite to Theory X. This theory states that ambitious and self-motivated workers enjoy doing their job. They like to seek and accept responsibility and apply their creativity in solving work-related problems, but most companies hesitate to let workers apply their skills, and under-utilize their workforce.
An autocratic leadership style is the worst possible leadership type, especially for employees with a Theory Y type of orientation. Most white-collar workers and professionals fall into this category.
Based on the nature of the workforce, examples of when to use autocratic leadership style remains most suitable during the following situations:
People with low motivation or achievement-orientation tend to work as little as possible, and when working in a group, tend to pass on work to others. An autocratic leader who assigns clear and precise responsibilities ensures that such workers work their share.
Many people working in a group lack the inclination to understand the intricacies of the project, and feel reluctant to take up responsibility if things go wrong. Collective or participative decision-making in such cases tends to delay progress. An autocratic leader empowered to make decisions and assign tasks and deliverables to the team members helps to keep the project on schedule.
When the project team consists entirely of new or inexperienced team members unfamiliar with their role, autocratic leadership remains the best approach to get work done without wasting time for the team members or to learn by trial and error.
Autocratic Leadership styles suit most blue-collared workers, especially those doing unskilled jobs who lack the qualifications, skills, or talent to respond to any participative leadership styles, or have low motivation, or require achievement acceptance to perform.
Situational Application of Autocratic Leadership Style
Even without the presence of Theory X type of workers or the contingency situations mentioned above, autocratic leadership becomes the only available option by default during certain situations. Examples of situational application of autocratic leadership include:
During times of emergency or contingencies, such as unexpected power outrages, disruption of communication lines, processing of an unexpected large order within a tight deadline, and the like. During such out-of-the-norm situations, the rank and file remains confused and are unable to reach a common decision.
There is severe time pressure and decisions need to be made on the spot, without time for consultants, discussions, and review of the pros and cons.
When dealing or negotiating with external agencies or departments and there is no time to consult with others.
Application of Autocratic Leadership Style Based on Nature of Work
An autocratic leadership style is most effective and appropriate when the nature of work requires a strong centralized control, with the leader responsible for giving detailed orders and instructions and taking the responsibility for decisions. Such situations usually arise:
Where precision of work to exact specification is of cardinal importance, such as in military and during surgery.
When work is complex and involves a high level of technicality or risk. In such situations the ownership of the decision is of critical importance in the aftermath.
When the organization is in a state of permanent flux and the nature of work requires instant decisions due to changes in the external environment or some other reason.
To manage an extremely large group, such as in assembly line factories, where the wide span of control not only makes it impossible but also counterproductive to adopt any other leadership style. Adopting a laissez faire or servant leadership style might for instance result in chaos, and adopting a participative leadership style might result in delays and problems due to exclusion of some members.
Other Applications of Autocratic Leadership Styles
Autocratic leadership style, though unpopular and seemingly outdated as a modern leadership style for a changing world, still realizes widespread use. Many a times, this leadership style comes naturally by default to most leaders.
Some leaders deliberately adopt an authoritative management style as part of strategy, when there remains no other pressing need to do so. Examples of when to use autocratic leadership in such cases include:
To counter challenges or threats to their authority by dint of office politics, personality clashes, or any other reason.
To prevent wastes of time and resources for leadership development in an industry or firm that traditionally has high turnover.
Among contemporary leaders, Martha Stewart and Donald Trump are two popular names who follow autocratic styles of leadership. Both manage with a non-nonsense attitude, pay great attention to small details, are very demanding, and both have managed to garner much success.