5 Examples of Autocratic Leadership for Business Owners

Martha Stewart at a book signing in New York everett225 / Deposit Photos

An authoritarian method of management, the autocratic leadership style is built upon the concept of having one person in power, making the vast majority of decisions.

As an autocratic leader, you hold complete authority over your company's policies and procedures, immediate direction and control of your employees' work-related activities, and the final say on the goals and targets of the organisation. Unsurprisingly, as such an extreme form of leadership, it is not always implemented capably by those in control, while it isn't always accepted by employees, either.

Therefore, to help you gain a better understanding of how to implement such an approach – including the circumstances in which it works best - we've listed five examples of autocratic leadership that have generated success – or courted disaster.

Leona Helmsley (Helmsley Hotels)

Leona Helmsley in 2003Chad Rachman via the New York Post

Dubbed the "Queen of Mean" by mainstream tabloids in her native US, Leona Helmsley was regularly recognised for her harsh and authoritarian leadership within the Helmsley hotel empire. Undeniably strict in her management of the company, the ex-real estate broker directly controlled 23 hotels in her husband's chain by the beginning of 1989. 

The hotel's marketing campaigns even played on this image, depicting her as a commanding sovereign intent on only the best for her establishment's guests. This same mentality was evident in her daily management, including the severe and often insensitive way in which she treated those working within the chain.

Although Helmsley was often harsh and unsympathetic, her demanding and authoritarian style proved successful for Helmsley Hotels. Any employees deemed to be carrying out a sub-standard job were reprimanded or instantly dismissed, creating a culture in which high standards of service were expected – and subsequently delivered – at all times.

Elon Musk (Tesla and SpaceX)

Billionaire entrepreneur Elon Musk at a red carpet eventJean_Nelson / Deposit Photos

A dogmatic and controversial leader, Elon Musk is one of the most influential CEOs and entrepreneurs in the world today. Having exercised an autocratic leadership style at each of his various enterprises, including car manufacturer Tesla and space exploration agency SpaceX, he has regularly overseen prosperity and success.

Aside from his strong personality and innovative genius, Musk is ambitiously insistent, setting exceptionally high standards for his hires. This includes intense scrutiny of the products that they create, even if it means changing his mind and discarding an idea after months of effort and in-depth planning.

However, like that other famous Silicon Valley genius, Steve Jobs, Musk also combines authoritarianism with a visionary approach. As his former head of HR at SpaceX, Dolly Singh, once observed, "[t]he thing that makes Elon is his ability to make people believe in his vision". The South African-born billionaire also understands the benefit of mentoring employees, which, even if done firmly, can create a solid leadership foundation for a company. This is a wise lesson to heed, as strong middle management is the cornerstone of many successful organisations.

Howell Raines (The New York Times)

Former New York Times editor, Howell Raines sitting on a conference panelPBS

As executive editor of the New York Times from 2001 to 2003, Howell Raines was intent on utilising the newspaper's budget and resources as fully as possible to cover what he felt were the most critical stories of the time. He referred to this approach as "flooding the zone".

Indeed, in an industry where tight deadlines and high standards are defining features, Raines' autocratic leadership style seemed the perfect fit, if not among employees then certainly with readers.

However, his story perfectly illustrates what can happen when you push things too far. Deputy editor Joe Sexton allegedly told board members that the newsroom staff felt "less led than bullied" under Raines' leadership, with other senior employees claiming that the then 58-year-old was "feared" rather than respected. Eventually, he was forced to resign by the Times' owner, Arthur Sulzberger Jr, having already alienated and lost a large segment of the publication's key reporting staff.

Martha Stewart (Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia)

Martha Stewart at a book signing in New Yorkeverett225 / Deposit Photos

One of the top female CEOs in living history, Martha Stewart is a leader who has utilised her keen sense of detail to build her business into the hugely influential conglomerate that it is today. Perhaps as a result of her detail-oriented personality, Stewart has often taken on a more authoritarian and meticulous style in regards to managing her company, making her an excellent example of autocratic leadership example done right.

Though some may argue that this style of leadership does not work, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO) is a clear example that, under suitable circumstances and when implemented appropriately, can result in an organisation transforming into a sum greater than its parts.

Donald Trump (The Trump Organization)

Donald Trump and ShrekPopularImages / Deposit Photos

Choosing to have all the power of the Trump Organization resting on his own (and a very limited selection of others') shoulders, Donald Trump is the key decision-maker for his eponymous conglomerate – or at least, was, prior to his current obligations.

Despite – like Leona Helmsley – demanding high standards from his employees (and firing anyone not up to scratch), he also offered high salaries as an incentive, with many employees claiming his management style was strict but fair.

Interestingly, in his current role as US President, Trump has had to temper certain aspects of his autocratic tendencies, reliant as the position is on compromise with the country's governing houses. This is proof in itself that different circumstances and different environments require you to be flexible in your leadership approach, and that for those who can adapt quickly, there is plenty of success to be found.

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Even if you are successful in your business endeavours, this should not stop you from pausing and trying to consider how you can become a better leader. There is always room for improvement, and no proprietor – regardless of the leadership style that they have chosen to adopt – should be above self-betterment.

Evidently, when considering the above examples, the authoritarian method certainly has its share of success stories. However, because it is not an ideal fit for every employee or environment, you should take into consideration your overall company goals, as well as the temperament and outlook of your employees.

Are you attempting to implement an autocratic leadership style in your business? What are your experiences so far? Let us know in the comment section below!