Jack Welch, chairman and CEO of General Electric between 1981 and 2001


Authoritarian or democratic leader?

Leaders fall into two broad categories, authoritarian (or autocratic) leaders and democratic (or participative) leaders. The democratic category also includes the laissez-faire category, which can be shown separately. Essential requirements of successful, effective leaders are:

  1. More clever than average, but not too clever (see 'Leadership Quality').
  2. Higher than average enterprise / creativity (see 'Enterprise Test').

Once the above two criteria are met, the personality of the leader will determine how effective he or she is.

A leader can be authoritarian or democratic, but in order to be effective, he or she must be task orientated.

The effectiveness of leaders is mainly determined by their personality; dependent upon whether they are task orientated or driven by emotion.

Leadership - authoritarian leaders or democratic leaders, effective or ineffective

Box 1 - Leaders should achieve success, at least in the short term, but they may leave longer term problems as their 'selfish' decision making is restricted through not listening enough to others. They are the ideal short term solution in rapidly changing or conflict situations where decisions need to be made quickly and followed through.

Box 2 - Leaders are ideal in short term stable situations, and in the long term, but they may not work too well in short term rapidly changing or conflict situations.

Task oriented leaders

Box 3 - Leaders may enjoy some success in the short term if there is sufficient overlap of personal needs with the needs of the team. Leader will fail in long term due to all decisions being made to fulfil own emotional needs.

Box 4 - Leaders may enjoy some success in the short term, dependent upon the make up of the team members. Leader will fail in long term due to all decisions being made to satisfy the emotional needs of other team members.

But it's not quite as straight forward as putting a leader into one of four boxes. Leaders can fall anywhere on the authoritarian - democratic continuum and anywhere on a task oriented - emotional continuum. In fact leaders who are task oriented and fall somewhere towards the center of the authoritarian - democratic continuum tend to be the most successful leaders in business.

Authoritarian or autocratic style leaders also find that they lose more staff members than democratic leaders. Employees prefer to work for democratic leaders as they feel that they are being listened to, whereas authoritarian or autocratic style leaders tend to preside over more discontent, hostility and aggression resulting in employees leaving.1

Narcissists can be placed in Box 3 as they are authoritarian and are usually ineffective; their decision making is based on their emotional needs. However, narcissists can also be authoritarian and effective in some situations. For example, narcissists may temporarily become task orientated when they can see a significant benefit to themselves (see 'How to recognize a narcissist').

Codependents can be placed in Box 4 as they are democratic and are usually ineffective; their decision making is based on the emotional needs of others (see 'Are you codependent?').

If you want to read more about authoritarian and democratic leadership, read Narcissism: Behind the Mask.

1 Van Vugt, M., Jepson, S., Hart, C. and De Cremer, D., (2004), Autocratic leadership in social dilemmas: A threat to group stability, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Vol. 40, No. 1, pp. 1-13.