The Autocratic Advantage: 5 Best Practices for Top-Down Leadership

Randomly pick any book on business leadership styles at a bookstore, and chances are it will sing praises of the democratic, all-inclusive leadership style.  Coercion, dictatorship, and autocracy are bad, it will claim.  Now think about some business leaders that have had the maximum impact on the world in recent years.  Do Steve Jobs, Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos come to mind?  What leadership style would you associate with them, democratic or autocratic?

autocratic leadership

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Over the 25 years that I have been scanning literature on leadership, I have yet to come across anything that indicates the need for autocratic leadership, yet the highly successful business leaders named above used just that.  So, who is right and who is wrong? Are we making a false choice based on conventional wisdom?

In a 28-country study we conducted for my book, Open Source Leadership, we asked over 16,000 corporate executives  what they thought.  To our surprise, a vast majority (over 75%) of our respondents in all 28 countries agreed or strongly agreed that in today’s open source era of breakneck speed and hyper connectivity, a significant amount of top-down, autocratic leadership is required for breakthrough success. Here are some of the qualitative reasons cited from the global study:

“In business today, you have to have strong top-down leadership to push through new and innovative ideas quickly. Remember you’re only as good as your next big idea. If you can’t bring it to fruition quick enough it doesn’t matter how good the idea was if somebody else is executing it.”

“If you want to get anything done, you cannot compromise on your vision no matter what; you have to stand in the face of adversity and stick to your guns.”

“Today’s complex and ever-changing business environment requires strong, bold leadership more than never before.”

“Often top down leaders have passion and the right knowledge to take things forward. It’s not possible to achieve consensus when drastic change is the need of the hour. There has to be someone who decides on behalf of many and others trust him/her for their thinking prowess.”

“Nowadays, for a company to stay competitive, decisions need to be made fast and accurately, hence the need for top-down leadership.  It is most effective to ensure that everyone is moving in the same direction for success, cohesion and to minimize failure.”

It is no secret that only those organizations that innovate faster and more frequently in the current environment will survive and thrive.  And if they are to innovate fast and more frequently, there is no time to be lost on consensus building.  Thanks to connectivity, almost everyone has a voice these days, and on any debate, there will be plenty of views on either side.

A clear sense of direction for the business can get lost in a mass of opinions that could muddy or compromise it. In this environment, leaders need to be decisive one way or another, even if it means being autocratic.

“But is it as easy as that? We just need to up the ante on being autocratic?,” a CEO asked me when I was chatting with him on this issue. ” I can do that,” he quipped.  Unfortunately, it is not easy at all.

While our data establishes the need for autocratic leadership, in the age when ordinary people are so empowered and free, they won’t let anyone be autocratic. Just think of the , or the recent ouster of Travis Kalanick from Uber.  Everyone today carries a super computer in their pocket, and can damage  anyone’s reputation within minutes on social media.  If a leader gets too autocratic, ordinary people can mobilize massive groundswell support and remove him.

“I am confused.  On the one hand, you say I need to be autocratic, on the other you say I won’t be allowed to. What are you really saying?” asked the CEO. In response, we talked for over an hour, but here is the gist of what I told him. Yes, you need to be autocratic for all the reasons and data mentioned above, but you must do so by practicing the five keys of positive autocracy:

  1. Earn the right to be autocratic – by consistently living the right values and pursuing the right purpose. Only if people believe that you are fully committed to creating a better future for them will they allow you to be autocratic.
  2. Be autocratic about values and purpose while remaining humble and respectful with people. In today’s age of 24/7 connectivity and total transparency, everyone and everything is completely open and naked. By being autocratic about one’s values and purpose and still remaining humble and respectful with people,
  3. Provide ‘freedom within a framework.’ Clarify a minimum core that is nonnegotiable, and allow people the freedom to operate as they see fit on everything else. Usually the minimum core constitutes the vision, mission, and values of the organization.
  4. Listen, learn, and reflect continuously. Even though one has to be autocratic to drive results, one must listen and learn all the time. If new information is compelling enough to change one’s values and purpose, one must stand ready to do so.
  5. Forgive more often. If the leader wants more innovation, he/she must encourage risk taking.  Only if failure is acceptable will people be willing to take risks. Hence, to enable innovation, forgiveness must form a key element of the organization’s culture.

Creating conditions conducive to positive autocracy means HR departments need to completely rethink leadership development.  It is time to shun outdated competency models, and teach people how to practice positive autocracy.

Open Source Leadership is our attempt to provide guidance on just how much has changed in recent years, and how HR needs to redefine not only leadership development, but also its handling of several other key people processes – succession planning, employee engagement surveys, performance management to name a few – which have now become outdated. In the true open source spirit, we’ve placed all our research data on an interactive online portal, which you can access by using the URL provided at the end of the book.  We invite you to join this ongoing effort to reimagine HR for the 21st century.  

Rajeev Peshawaria Author of Open Source Leadership and Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders, Rajeev Peshawaria is the CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre. Prior positions include Global Chief Learning Officer of both Coca-Cola and Morgan Stanley, and senior roles at American Express and Goldman Sachs. Rajeev provides speaking and consulting services globally to organizations in both public and private sectors. Full Bio