What is Authoritarian Leadership?

No one likes to be told what to do, but in some situations, it’s not only justified, but effective.

Enter the authoritarian leader, a leader that takes a “my way or the highway” approach.

What is Authoritarian Leadership?

Authoritarian leadership is a leadership style in which one person dictates and controls all the decisions involving an organization, project team or group. It’s a style that has lost popularity over the years but remains useful in some circumstances.

Those who work for such leaders are not expected to second guess decisions or even offer input before a decision is made. Authoritarian leaders typically manage employees through a series of rigid rules to follow, and prefer “conformist followers,” according to Leadership: Theory, Application, & Skill Development, 4th Edition. “A conformist follower is someone who is high on involvement but low on critical thinking;” in other words, “yes people.”

It’s a conformist approach where everyone is expected to get on the same page – and then some. As noted in a study conducted by researchers from China and Australia, authoritarian leadership involves leaders who assert “strong authority and control over subordinates and demand unquestioned obedience from them.” The study notes that this style of leadership is popular in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia Pacific organizations, and has been getting increased attention elsewhere in recent years.

What are the Qualities of an Authoritarian Leader?

Leaders who use an authoritarian approach are often thought of by employees as controlling and “bossy.” Other characteristics of authoritarian leaders, according to the study, include:

  • Demand high standards
  • Make decisions without input
  • Dictate work methods and processes
  • Consider rules very important
  • Discourage creativity and out-of-box thinking
  • Conduct work in a highly structured and rigid manner

Like all leadership styles, authoritarian leadership has its advantages and disadvantages. Under certain circumstances, it may provide some benefits.

What Are the Advantages of Authoritarian Leadership?

While it sounds antithetical to modern leadership qualities that call for soft skills such as great communication and collaboration, an authoritarian approach can work under certain circumstances.

A clear example of the successful use of authoritarian leadership is in the military, where an officer is given the power of command and subordinates are expected to obey orders without question. It’s an environment where there is little room for mistakes and having decision-making power centralized works well when the officer has been trained exclusively for this task.

Coaches on sports teams also typically follow this structure. Authoritarian leadership also works well in situations where the workers are inexperienced and need strong guidance. Another situation suited for authoritarian leadership is a short-term one where a project must be completed in a tight time frame.

In all these situations, the ability for one leader to quickly make decisions and provide structured guidance to others is beneficial.

It might even help employees. The study done by academics in China and Australia looked at data from 211 companies in China where authoritarian leadership is practiced. They found that authoritarian leadership has a positive impact on employee outcomes and that such leadership “may also motivate employees to enhance their performance.”

They found a direct correlation between improved employee performance in an authoritarian environment and the individual employer’s level of power distance (a measurement of their ability to accept that power is distributed unequally in an organization).

What Are the Disadvantages of Authoritarian Leadership?

If authoritarian leadership lasts too long, there’s a chance that it will stifle creativity, frustrate employees and even cause talented people to look for work elsewhere. Most offices in the United States, Canada and Europe are built on the idea of employee contributions and an “everyone is involved” concept.

Authoritarian leadership undermines those ideas. In the study done in China, the researchers repeatedly noted that Chinese employees may do better than those in other places under authoritarian leadership because they are more familiar with top-down organizational structures.

Is Authoritarian Leadership Effective?

Authoritarian leadership seems most effective in particular situations (tight deadlines on a project or an inexperienced staff) and less desirable in the typical office situation. However, that can depend on where you are in the world and the type of employees working at the company.

Authoritarian leadership works best if leaders take the time to:

  • Listen to input from others – even if they don’t incorporate the ideas, the employees will feel better having been heard
  • Establish clear rules that everyone must follow and stay consistent with those rules
  • Make sure employees have the tools and education needed to succeed at the tasks they are assigned
  • Recognize those who do well

What Are Some Examples of Authoritarian Leaders?

Examples of authoritarian leaders are numerous outside of the U.S. Within the country, there are some examples that stand out, according to Search CIO. They include:

  • Richard Nixon: Nixon has been known for setting himself up as the sole decision-maker
  • Lorne Michaels: The “Saturday Night Live” executive producer is known for having an autocratic style when deciding what goes in and what does not for the show
  • Bill Gates: Gates was the primary decision-maker for Microsoft, particularly in the early days of the company

Authoritarian leadership, for most executives, is a situational style they adopt when needed, not one put in place for the long term. While that can depend greatly on the industry and location, that’s the case for most organizational leaders in the U.S.

The Study of Leadership

Aspiring and growing leaders can benefit from understanding how to manage multidisciplinary teams and different leadership styles. Learning how to navigate the essential competencies of effective leadership as well, such as conflict management and team leadership, can help you grow as a leader.

If you’re interested in learning more about the complex dynamics of the business world and the core components of different leadership styles, Florida Tech’s MA in Organizational Leadership online program can put you on the path to effective leadership.

Related Readings:

What is Organizational Leadership?

7 Essential Elements of Leadership

The Dark Side of Leadership

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