When most of us started in leadership we probably did not set out with the goal of becoming a dictator or using autocratic leadership.
I read a recent headline, “Mother killed in stabbing attack, 5-year-old daughter in critical condition,” and a sense of righteous indignation began to build in me. As I continued reading, “Defensive wounds show 5-year-old girl fought attacker,” my blood began to boil. The article suggests the murder of the mother of 3 and the attempted murder of her 5-year-old daughter was the result of domestic violence.
It would be hard to find a person that would not eagerly condemn the act of violence described in the article I mentioned. However, the path leaders take towards becoming autocratic leaders are often the same steps taken by domestic violence (DV) perpetrators. While we may quickly judge a DV perpetrator or a savage dictator, we rarely give ourselves the same level of judgment when we begin to slip toward autocratic leadership.
What Is Autocratic Leadership?
A leadership style where the leader has complete control. All decisions are made by the leader with little or no input from those they lead. Essentially an autocratic leader is a dictator. While varying degrees of ruthlessness occur in autocratic leaders, they all share the common trait of demanding absolute power and control.
The Danger of Autocratic Leadership
Plenty has been written on the benefits and shortcomings of the autocratic leadership style. I’m sorry, but I have to deviate from the trove of information presented on this topic. Highlighting the benefits of autocratic leadership compares to highlighting the benefits of using Meth or Heroin. The damage done while experiencing any “benefit” is so severe, I believe it is unethical to truly call it a benefit.
Autocratic leadership can be dangerous in several ways:
1 – Autocratic Leadership Is Addictive
Research shows the chemical cocktail produced when we experience power over others can have a profound effect on our bodies.
Columbia and Harvard University researchers Carney, Cuddy, and Yap provide evidence that even using power projecting poses can have an impact on both testosterone and cortisol levels (1). Both of these chemicals play an important role in increasing levels of aggression.
Narvaes and Martins de Almeida suggest dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with reward and pleasure, is elevated when an oppressor goes on the offense against a defensive foe (2). Serotonin, another component in the body’s reward system, also seems to be altered when aggressive behaviors are being used.
When you look at the combined impact of the various chemicals when we experience power over others, it is easy to see how power can become a dangerous addiction:
- Increased testosterone levels increase the potential for aggression.
- Decreased cortisol levels reduce the body’s ability to effectively cope with stress.
- Aggressive behaviors impact dopamine and serotonin levels and essentially produces a high similar to drug use or sweet foods (3, 4).
- The body will crave the high delivered by aggression, but eventually, the repeated exposure will decrease the brain’s sensitivity to the reward chemicals. The brain will now require higher and higher levels to receive the same level of reward from their behavior (5).
2 – Autocratic Leadership Initially Can Seem to Be “Effective”
While I’ve spent most of my career as a leader in a Fortune 500 tech company, for a short time I worked as a licensed domestic violence intervention counselor. In this time, I worked with almost 100 DV perpetrators. When asked why they resorted to abusive power and control, everyone had the same response: it worked.
Many of the perpetrators didn’t feel respected in many areas of their life. The first time they used abusive power and control it seemed to work. They seemingly gained respect and the response they were hoping for. The next time, it worked again. Not only did it work, but they also began to feel a high with every oppressive action.
Over time they began to lose respect and the high wasn’t as strong it once was. To recapture the respect they craved, and the aggression fueled euphoria, most perpetrators eventually escalate their abusive power and control.
Unfortunately, this escalating cycle of abusive power and control can also show up in the workplace. With deadlines looming and stress rising, many leaders can take the enticing bait of autocratic leadership. At first, this leadership style appears to provide the results they are hoping for. However, just like the destructive DV cycle, their level of dominance and aggression will need to continue to rise to achieve the expected results.
It’s clear to see that this destructive cycle is not sustainable and it will eventually destroy the leader and cause significant harm to everyone around them.
3 – Autocratic Leaders Can Be Unaware of Their Impact
Another common trait of the DV perpetrators was to minimize their abusive behaviors. In our group sessions, we would ask the perpetrators to describe the circumstances that lead to them joining our group. In almost every case, the perpetrators initially had a hard time seeing the severity of their actions. We found statements like “I guess the argument got a little physical” often translated to the victim being beaten unconscious.
While I would hope these levels of abuse would never find their way into the workplace, it is just as likely that autocratic leaders will be unaware of their full impact on their abusive leadership.
How to Avoid the Destructive Power of Autocratic Leadership
While the seductive pull of autocratic leadership is strong, it is certainly a downfall that can be avoided.
Here are a few simple steps:
1 – Humble Yourself
Humility is one of the best antidotes to protect yourself and those you lead from the dangers of autocratic leadership. When a leader can be vulnerable and ask for help in areas of weakness it can neutralize many of the damaging effects of power addiction. Leaders who humble themselves will tune their neurological reward mechanism to crave collaborative success, rather than domination.
2 – Listen to Others
For twenty-five years, you paid for my hands when you could have had my brain as well – for nothing.” (A middle-aged appliance worker at a Work-Out) – Jack Welch (6)
An autocratic leader will often minimize the value they can receive from listening to others, but the best leaders constantly look for ways they can learn. Often the simplest way to learn is to ask for other’s thoughts and opinions.
3 – Empower Others
The autocratic leader will limit the success of their organization to their skills and abilities. John Maxwell calls this concept the law of the lid (7). There is a linear relationship between the leader’s ability and the effectiveness of the organization. Our leadership efforts are no longer defined by simple addition when we empower others, they are multiplied.
4 – Surround Yourself with Others That Challenge You
Good leadership requires you to surround yourself with people of diverse perspectives who can disagree with you without fear of retaliation.” – Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals (8)
Creating a culture where leaders welcome opinions that differ from their own is another powerful antidote against autocratic leadership. President Lincoln’s leadership is one of the clearest examples of this approach. He built his leadership team with those that were his rivals, those he knew would challenge him.
As leaders, we aren’t always required to surround ourselves with rivals, but we do need to foster an environment where any member of our organization is welcome to challenge us. This should be especially true with those that are closest to us.
“Business is built by those who care—care enough to disagree, fight it out to a finish, get facts. When two men always agree, one of them is unnecessary.” – William Wrigley Jr. (9)
Autocratic leadership may seem like a legitimate leadership style in some situations, but in almost every case the supposed short-term benefits are never worth the devastating long-term effects. As leaders we can protect ourselves from this seduction by humbling ourselves, listening to others, empowering others, and surrounding ourselves with those that will challenge us.
Are you ready to get started developing your own leadership style? Learn about more here.