What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership is a classical leadership style marked by leaders having complete authority over the organization. They have no need to explaining their rationale and followers obey instructions without question. It is an extension of dictatorship and absolute monarchy within the corporate sphere. Most traditional factories thrived under autocratic leaders who stood watch to ensure the factory worked at the maximum required efficiency. While modern management theorists deride across-the-board application of this leadership style, the fact remains that autocratic leadership style comes naturally to many leaders. This article will cover several examples of autocratic leadership within companies. You may even recognize the names of some of these famous autocratic leaders.
Leona Helmsley of the Helmsley Hotel Chain
A striking example of an autocratic leader in the corporate world was Leona Helmsley of the Helmsley hotel chain. Her combative style earned her the tabloid nickname “the Queen of Mean.”
While Leona’s autocratic leadership style did make the Helmsley hotel chain popular, her demands of perfection from everyone, and her exacting ways scraped the dignity of everyone on her payroll, from the cleaning staff to top executives. She allegedly “treated people like garbage," one example being to fire on the spot a secretary daring to use the Helmsley Palace dry cleaner to remove an accidental spill on her clothing, even though she had worked diligently for eight years.
Disgruntled employees soon raised several charges of tax evasion, kickbacks, extortion, and the like against Leona, and the charges of tax evasion struck. She spent millions of dollars overhauling her mansions and luxuries, and claimed them against the profits of the hotel chain. Her personal maid testified against her, and her much-derided quote that “only the little people pay taxes” led her to spend 21 months in prison and fines.
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Howell Raines of The New York Times
In the past, the New York Times ranked among the top companies with autocratic leadership. It had A. M. Rosenthal, a famous autocratic leader who presided over the company during the 1970s. While it was not easy to work under such an autocratic leader, the leadership style raised efficiency and contributed to bottom line growth in the highly demanding newspaper industry that requires some form of autocratic control to meet tight deadlines on a regular basis.
Howell Raines, the executive editor between 2001 and 2003 followed Rosenthal’s footsteps. His policy of “flooding the zone" or using all resources to cover what he deemed were important stories led to unprecedented success, with the company winning a record seven Pulitzers Prize in one year.
His autocratic style however led to charges of highhandedness and callousness. His drive to get things done made him contemptuous, dismissive, and sarcastic, even to senior journalists. He centralized decision-making, and killed stories at will. He disregarded all efforts and contributions before his arrival, assumed everyone as “lazy," and “lethargic," and divided the journalists into “stars," and “also-rans." All these however created distress and dissension among the staff, and morale fell, leading to a decline in both quality and quantity of information. Raines was fired after 21 months in the job.
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Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO)
Martha Steward is another example of a famous autocratic leader, exemplifying a meticulous and highly demanding individual. In 2007, she single handedly effected a turn around of her ailing Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO).
Martha pays personalized attention to every detail, and remains meticulous and demanding of her staff. She allegedly treats people as a commodity and critics opine she would have not have reached the brink of bankruptcy and would have achieved more success during the turnaround if she had not followed her autocratic leadership style.
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Donald Trump of Trump Organization
Donald J. Trump is a definition of the American success story, having set new standards of excellence in business. He however is also atypical of an autocratic leader who centralizes decision-making, and wields absolute power. He involves himself with the minutest of details of his enterprise, and limits inputs from a select few in his team.
Albert J Dunlap of Sunbeam Corporation
Albert J Dunlap, inducted as the Chief Executive Officer of Sunbeam Corporation in 1996 wasted no time to stamp his autocratic leadership style. His 20 month stint remains renowned for indiscriminate across the board firings. He fired 11,000 people or 40 percent of the workforce. While this move improved the bottom line and raised share prices, the loss of talent meant that the company faced erosion on value, leading to long-term decline.
Dunlap’s leadership is the perfect example of the impact of autocratic leadership style on the organization. In almost all cases, autocratic leadership style helps improve organizational efficiency and contribute to the bottom line in the short-term. This improvement is however a quick fix, coming at the cost of erosion of a company’s underlying assets and laying the foundation for permanent damage in the future.
- Kellerman, Barbara. (2004). Bad leadership: what it is, how it happens, why it matters. Harvard Business Press. ISBN1591391660, 9781591391661
- DuBrin, Andrew J. (2008). Essentials of Management. Cengage Learning. ISBN 0324353898, 9780324353891