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An introduction to Authoritarian Leadership


Authoritarian leadership is perhaps the most immediately recognisable leadership style. Ask a person to come up with an example of a leadership figure, and the chances are pretty good that they will think of a powerful ruler or military leader from history who fully embodies the idea of leading through strict control.


Now itself considered as far more of a historical approach, authoritarian leadership is identified with firm discipline, organisation and near-complete control of a group of followers. It might be best associated with military commands or a dictatorial leader, and has fallen from favour in today’s workplaces as the primary form of leadership.


An autocratic leader issues commands, and enforces their completion. They look for little or no feedback from followers, and they demonstrate limited trust in their followers’ capacity to undertake most tasks. Empowerment is likely to be strictly limited, with all decisions and tasks flowing solely from the top. Put like this, it is perhaps not surprising that the approach is no longer much-favoured, yet there are potentially situations where a leader might apply such an approach in the short term.


Perhaps most obviously, an authoritative style is most useful when a task needs completing to a very strict deadline. In such situations, having firm timelines and goals can be a logical approach, while debate and discussion need to be kept to a minimum as there simply isn’t time for it. This same logic is also potentially appropriate where a team member possesses very limited skill and experience for the task in front of them – perhaps as a new novice employee. Here too, a strict set of instructions and expectations that provides limited capacity for going ‘off-plan’ can be useful for getting the job done.


The principle downsides to authoritative approaches to leadership are perhaps more self-evident. As a leader, using such an approach over any substantial length of time is hardly likely to win many fans. It will generate a strong sense of disengagement among employees, who are left with minimal capacity for creativity and independent thought, and who will feel marginalised and untrusted by those higher up. It will also stymie problem-solving and entrench inefficiencies by cutting off employees’ ability to suggest improvements and fresh approaches to undertaking tasks.


Authoritarian leadership, then, does have a place in a leader’s armoury of approaches to different situations. However, it is widely considered to be something of a ‘last resort’ option that should be avoided in all but the most critical situations. Most leaders, after all, are not leading in the pressure-cooker stress of a military situation, so it is wise to avoid treating followers as if they are. 
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