Does autocratic leadership work best?

In world politics, the dominant trend is the popularity of leaders with autocratic shades.  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. Only that leaders perceived as strong and with the ability to make quick and bold decisions are on the rise globally. 

So, is the preference for autocratic leaders in politics, indicative of what’s better for the corporate world?  Maybe not.  Yet, the corporate world has always been ruled by authoritative leaders.  Capitalism and authoritarianism go hand in hand.  You do what you are told.  The communist style allowed much greater worker participation.  Probably, that’s the reason they failed. 

In the business world, at the autocratic extreme, employees are constantly reminded of who’s in charge.  Even if someone else takes a decision, the leader is the person who takes the credit.  At the other extreme, there are the consensus-driven, democratic or laissez faire leaders.  Leaders who take everyone’s views into consideration.  And prefer everyone to be on the same page for decisions.  Or, in true laissez faire leadership style, assume that all decision-making should be delegated. 

So, is autocracy what works best in the corporate environment?  Undoubtedly, what works well is a style which tends more towards autocracy, than consensus.  Employees love 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. 

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? Wouldn’t an employee prefer that bus?  The latter bus represents an organization with a decisive leader.

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 of the characteristics differentiating an ‘enlightened autocrat’ from a ‘dictator’. 

Don’t stop listening (or talking)

A leader needs to talk to share vision and directions. Yet, he still needs to listen to subordinates.  That’s where you get inputs which help you make quick decisions when required. 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 autocrat doesn’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

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 sent 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.  There needs to be honesty and heart put into everything.

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.  What if it turns out to be the wrong decision?  Or, sometimes it’s just cognitive miserliness.  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. 

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