The prevailing wisdom among those who speak of leadership techniques is that one should coach employees rather than manage them. The autocratic approach to leadership seems outdated. But is there a still a place for the one-way leadership model?


One would be hard-pressed these days to find a white paper or blog post that exalts an old-fashioned autocratic leadership style. This is a leadership style in which the manager retains as much power and decision-making authority as possible. Under that leadership, employees are not consulted, nor are they allowed to give any input. Employees are motivated through a structured set of rewards and punishments.

What you’ll find in the place of advice about that leadership style are multitudes of philosophic musings about coaching techniques, empowering employees, working with employees to establish goals, and developing employee growth plans.

I will agree that the latter style is preferable in most every case. However, I will also contend that an autocratic leadership style can be successful in the right circumstances.

What I’ve come to discover in my years of management is that there are some people who are not comfortable with strategizing or being consulted about work goals. Those people just want to be given a set of goals and a clear-cut expectation of what will happen if the goals are, or are not, met. Some people prefer to take care of the details and leave the big picture stuff to others. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Unless, of course, you push a details person into the receiving end of the democratic leadership model. You start asking that person to weigh in on complex problems and high-level decisions, or to take on strategic initiatives, and you could be asking for trouble. People who are good with details can sometimes paralyze a strategic initiative while they’re crossing all the T’s and dotting all the I’s.

On the other hand, many people flourish under a democratic leadership style (and I’m not talking politics, so put away your poison pens). Those people, however, could be focused so broadly that the undetected or undealt with details could derail the final outcome of a project.

Each situation is different and all the people on your staff differ from each other. You just have to be prepared to manager differently.


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