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The only time you should be an autocratic leader

March 28, 2022

There are many different leadership styles:

  • Coach

  • Visionary

  • Servant

  • Laissez-faire

  • Democratic

  • Pacesetter

  • Transformational

  • Transactional

  • Bureaucratic

  • Autocratic

One style that gets a bad reputation is autocratic. We’ve certainly observed this type of leader in history and currently. Think Adolf Hitler, Napoleon Bonaparte, Vince Lombardi, President Richard M. Nixon, Martha Stewart, Elon Musk, and Howell Raines. That’s a wide range of people who did wildly different things with their lives. And the varying impacts they had or have on the world certainly cements them on different sides of history.

In fact, I’d say that this style is the one most often associated with toxic leadership. Leaders with this style likely won’t seek or want the input, feedback, or opinions of others. They want the people on their team to follow orders—often without question. This style lends itself to people with big egos who think highly of themselves, and believe they know more than everyone else.

In general, I don’t think those are very good traits to have in a leader. But I’ve found there to be two factors that push a good leader to adopting the autocratic style:

  1. The consequence of high risk. In certain situations, a decision carries a high risk. And making the wrong choice can be costly in terms of safety, customer experience, or finances.

  2. The consequence of timeliness. There’s not always time to thoroughly explore the options before you. Some choices need to be decided in a timely manner, often in a split second.

And where do you find these factors converging on the other? A crisis.

I think military examples fit this scenario well. If an army was in the middle of a battle, there’s no time to have a team meeting, do a root cause analysis, and put out a report recommending action. No, decisions must be made now. Failure to take quick action has significant consequences. Lives will be lost. Risk and timeliness are the critical factors for great leadership.

Outside of the military, I think about how Johnson & Johnson dealt with the tampering of Tylenol in 1982. Someone laced Tylenol-branded acetaminophen with potassium cyanide killing seven people in Chicago. Before J&J knew the full picture of what was happening, they had to act. They halted production and advertising, distributed warnings to hospitals and distributors, and made a nationwide recall of Tylenol products. Again, high risk and timeliness were of the utmost importance.

In crisis situations, the risks are high, and timeliness is a must. Leaders of all styles must be able to adopt the autocratic style. The key for these leaders who need to be autocrats during these situations is to be able to switch out of this style when the crisis passes.

. . .

Jeff Custer is a long-time leader at both private and Fortune 500 companies where he has developed and led both high performance individuals and teams. He is passionate about developing leaders and building high impact teams. Jeff resides in the United States.

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