authoritarian leadership

What is authoritarian leadership?

Authoritarian leadership, also known as autocratic leadership, is a management style where an individual possesses total decision-making power and retains as much authority as possible, often requiring followers to strictly adhere to their directives without much freedom or participation.

Contrasted with other leadership styles, such as transformational, paternalistic, democratic and delegative, authoritarian leadership heavily emphasizes a centralized power structure where leaders have full decision-making power, emphasizing a top-down approach. They make decisions without much input from their team members, focusing on a centralized power structure where the leader's word is final.

Other management styles different from authoritarian leadership in the following ways:

  • Transformational leadership is characterized by leaders who inspire and motivate their team members through a shared vision and purpose. Transformational leaders focus on fostering innovation, challenging the status quo and developing their followers into leaders.
  • Democratic (participative) leadership prioritizes the input of team members and emphasizes decisions based on consensus. This approach promotes collaboration and is often seen in environments where feedback is essential for success.
  • Delegative (laissez-faire) leadership provides teams with autonomy, often giving them the freedom to make their own decisions. Delegative leaders typically intervene only when necessary and trust their team's expertise to carry out tasks without constant supervision.
A list of transformational leadership characteristics.
Transformational leaders are adaptable and embrace change.

Characteristics of authoritarian leadership

As mentioned above, authoritarian leadership is a distinctive style marked by a leader's strong central control over all aspects of decision-making. In such a setup, the leader holds all authority and responsibility, often making decisions without seeking input from their followers.

Subordinates or followers under this leadership have limited autonomy, as they are given minimal opportunity to participate in decision-making processes and are expected to follow orders without any debate.

A hallmark of this style is its strict adherence to rules and protocols, allowing little to no room for flexibility or deviation from the established guidelines. Furthermore, within an authoritarian framework, there are clear hierarchies, ensuring that there is a well-defined chain of command where each tier is fully aware of its duties and responsibilities.

A list of authoritarian leadership characteristics.
Authoritarian leadership places total decision-making power and most authority with a single individual.

Pros and cons of authoritarian leadership

Authoritarian leadership is both lauded and criticized for its unique approach to management. While it offers certain advantages in terms of decision-making speed and clarity in roles, it also brings about potential challenges, especially concerning innovation and employee morale.

Advantages of authoritarian leadership

  • Efficiency. Decisions are made quickly, without lengthy debates.
  • Clarity. Roles and expectations are clearly defined.
  • Control. The leader has a maintains strict control of all operations and activities.

Disadvantages of authoritarian leadership

  • Lack of innovation. There are fewer opportunities for team members to provide new ideas or perspectives.
  • Employee dissatisfaction. Team members may feel undervalued, leading to low morale.
  • Dependency. Organizations might become too dependent on the leader, which causes issues if the leader is absent or replaced.

Where authoritarian leadership does and doesn't thrive

Authoritarian leadership is beneficial in industries and organizations where decisions need to be made urgently and efficiently as well as where it's critical that certain tasks are performed in a specific way and there is little room for mistakes. Such industries include construction, manufacturing and military.

Using this type of leadership prevents the chances of projects getting sidelined by a lack of organization or solid deadlines. It also helps team members concentrate on particular tasks without having to participate in the complex decision-making process. Authoritarian leadership can also be advantageous in cases where the leader is the most knowledgeable person in an organization.

Excessive use of this leadership style may cause the leader to be viewed as domineering and oppresive, which can cause resentment or aggression among group members. Furthermore, followers may dislike that they can't contribute their expertise or opinions to decision-making. These factors may lead to a higher churn rate.

Additionally, authoritarian leaders typically lack creative problem-solving and troubleshooting skills, which can hurt an organization's operations.

Authoritarian leadership is most valuable in situations where managers are training or regulating staff that lack skills and experience. Motivational styles of leadership, such as authentic leadership, are more useful in groups that consist of more experienced individuals.

A diagram of all C-suite roles and their responsibilities.
The authoritarian leadership style can be found inside and outside the C-suite.

Examples of authoritarian leaders

In today's rapidly changing business environment, authoritarian leadership might seem out of place. However, there have been and still are leaders who adopt this executive leadership style effectively. Examples of leaders who have used authoritarian leadership include Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Lorne Michaels and Elon Musk.

Leadership is a critical skill in the C-suite. Learn the ten skills CIOs and IT leaders need. See why the differences between transformational vs. transactional leadership styles matter to virtual teams.

This was last updated in October 2023

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