Does a leader “show the way” or does a leader “guide and inspire”? These alternative Collins dictionary explanations point to some of the key differences between autocratic and democratic styles of leadership. Leadership Experts point out that there are advantages and disadvantages of each style and that each has requirements and effects upon managers, staff and the situations in which they are practised. Ideally, leadership styles will vary depending upon the task and prevailing situation.
Autocratic leaders make decisions and issue orders to subordinates with the expectation that these will be carried out. Thus the leader is in control, exerts authority and does not refer to subordinates for advice or suggestions. There is an assumption that the autocratic leader knows best.
In contrast, democratic leaders will actively consult with subordinates, will delegate and share responsibility and will seek feedback from others. This style of leadership takes a more collective approach to decision making. More effective decisions can be made through greater knowledge and feedback.
By devaluing the views or suggestions of subordinates the autocratic style of leadership can result in de-motivation of followers and difficulty in developing skills within an organisation for succession planning. Subordinates can feel distant from the organisation as decisions are out of their control. Strict discipline is often associated with this style.
Conversely, the inclusion and valuing of ideas and suggestions from subordinates can act as empowerment under democratic leadership. Subordinates are able to develop their own decision making and leadership skills through delegated responsibility and to take ownership of work.
Periods of crisis or short term deadlines for technical work, are ideal situations for quick, clear decision making of an autocratic leader. Extremely large organisations with low skilled workforces also often deploy this style due to scale and limited contact between manager and staff. Its use in the military is a standard example.
Professional and non-profit making organisations are more likely to practice democratic leadership where decisions may be based upon detailed expertise, creativity or professional judgements, in situations that are more measured and inclusive than those benefitting from autocratic styles.
Control of decision making results in responsibility and accountability resting in the hands of the autocratic leader. Although concentrated and speedier, it potentially limits the quality of those decisions whilst increasing the level of stress and expectation placed upon the leader. Effectiveness will depend upon the level of confidence, capability and strength of the individual leader to take control.
In democratic leadership the inclusion of others in making decisions can be viewed as a weakness, whilst delegation can be seen as passing the buck. Decisions may be of greater quality but are arrived at more slowly. Accountability still rests with the leader of the group who will need to be confident, strong and capable enough to delegate, to accept feedback and to take responsibility for the outcomes.