Autocrat, Democrat, or Servant: What’s your leadership style?

Every leader has a leadership style. And leadership styles have consequences.

According to PayScale’s 2014 Compensation Best Practices report, most employees leave their jobs for “personal reasons” or for higher pay. Pay is important, of course. Despite how much we may like our jobs, if our employers couldn’t pay us, we’d likely quit.

Still, people have been known to accept positions at the same rate of pay or to even take a pay cut. Some do this for personal reasons (irony intended) such as to escape a bad relationship with the boss.

Like I said, leadership style has consequences.

What’s your leadership style?

There are basically three types of leaders—democrats, autocrats, and servants.

Democrats lead by consensus. Democratic leaders regularly solicit input and feedback before making decisions. Democratic leaders believe that people want to work and are capable of high performance without a lot of oversight. Democratic leadership is also known as “participative” leadership.

In contrast, autocrats believe that people don’t want to work and won’t work without strong (usually negative) outside incentives. Autocrats are the original micromanagers and practice the “control and command” style of leadership.

Servant leadership is something altogether different. Servant leadership is a collaborative management style that views employees as partners. Servant leaders view their role as one of stewards, responsible for the development of employees in their care.

What does it matter?

Again, leadership style has consequences.

Democratic leadership

Democratic leadership tends to result in more productive and engaged employees, because “psychologically safe” environments—wherein employees are able to contribute ideas without fear of reprisal or ridicule— encourages greater participation and commitment.

One the downside, democratic leadership can lead to decision making inefficiencies when the leader hesitates to make a decision without consensus, or when the leader relies on input from unqualified sources. (I’ve seen this happen, for example, during the recruiting process when the leader solicits the opinion of those not qualified to determine a candidate’s suitability.)

Autocratic leadership

Like democratic leadership, autocratic leadership can lead to high levels of productivity, at least temporarily. Autocratic leadership can also result in more efficient decision making, since fewer people are needed to provide input. Finally, autocratic leadership may be especially useful during moments of crisis or when teaching new employees new tasks.

In the long-term however, autocratic leadership tends to result in lower morale, lower productivity, higher turnover, and lower-quality decisions. Autocratic leadership doesn’t allow room for employee autonomy, and the best employees won’t tolerate that situation indefinitely. The rest will eventually become less engaged and less productive.

Servant leadership

I confess to a bias concerning servant leadership. Rather than focusing on the desire to lead (which often is related to the desire to acquire control and influence) the servant leader focuses on a desire to serve.

According to the Robert K. Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, a servant leader “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong … the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Although this might sound a little “touchy feely,” servant leadership takes guts, maturity, dedication, and discipline. And while servant leadership puts people first, people goals are aligned with organizational goals. For example, coaxing someone who’s unsuitable for the job out of the organization would not be incompatible with servant leadership.

Finally, servant leadership is sustainable in a way the other leadership styles simply aren’t.

In summary …

So, what’s your leadership style? And is it working for you?



Add yours
  1. 1

    I think all 3 styles of leadership have their place. A really good leader can use all these styles as the situation requires it. I’d like to see a series of articles detailing more about each style and examples of when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to use.

  2. 2
    Pete Petersen

    ” Servant leadership ” sounds like a new HR term that may have been previously expressed as the benevolent manger style.

    It is important to remember, in any organization “your people are your best resources ” and should be consulted, nurtured, and mentored to promote a healthy work environment. The concept works well and results in better camaraderie and improved production.

    Unfortunately in my last employ, in downtown Washington, the younger corporate “Partner- in Charge” of our office could not see his way to spend a nickel treating staff to a well deserved lunch ” or offer annual bonuses on more than 2 %, HE was simply too damned cheap !

    And benevolent manner, apparently conflicted with his financial philosophy of keeping the earnings for himself, leading ultimately to a restructuring of the office. Is the staff better off ?

    Question for the ages. .

  3. 3

    Servant leader! As I empower each person on my team to focus on their work and do the best they can, I also encourage them to learn from mistakes and grow so the next project will be an even better work product than the last. I continually ask is there is anything they need to work more efficiently or more effectively. From my view, my company label is “Resource Manager” which fits the bill as a “Servant Leader”. I do not look at people solely as a resource but I do look more at what resources they need to do the work we do. If they lack a resource, be it training, hardware, software, tools, etc. I work to get them what they need.

    I always instill in the people I work with that their family comes first and then the job. If something happens with the family, they all know they can drop what they are doing and the rest of us will pick it up and carry on. I have seen people try to deal with a family issues while working for a Autocrat and their productivity goes down as well as their personal well being (they will never succeed and neither does the Autocrat). Communication in my team is essential to making smooth transitions when chaos and/or radical things happen. We plan our work and then work our plan!

  4. 5

    Servant Leadership if far from a new HR term. Robert Greenleaf wrote about it in the 1970s, You can go back further to the new testament or to the Tao Ching. Everything old is new again.

  5. 6

    I agree with TMM. Each style of leadership has its place and time. Not sure that the term “Servant” is ideal when used in a business environment.

  6. 7
    D Carter

    Leadership reallly does depend on situations. At times, leadership needs to be democratic, other times autocratic and ideally, servant. However, true leadership is when someone can look at any situation and asses which leadership style would be most effective for that time.

  7. 8

    D Carter has a good point! In time of crisis, the Autocrat directs and gets something done. I came across an automobile accident and everyone was standing around bewildered. I guess I went into Autocrat mode and directed people to take care of traffic control and assist me with the injured. But it was only one person directing the scene and others were compelled to follow that lead. Also, the Servant Leader concept comes from the depiction of Christ washing the disciples feet. The Jewish Nation was looking for an Autocrat and they did not see the Servant Leader.

  8. 9

    I agree all 3 types of leadership have their place. Differing levels of staff experience and knowledge plays a role in what style works best in each circumstance. A leader needs to know or get to know the key employees and build trusting relationships to know what style will work best with that subordinate leader/key employee and those employees who report to this team member. I too would like to see more detail about each style to help identify when it’s appropriate to use each.

  9. 10

    I agree that all 3 styles of leadership have their place and to used as the situation requires it. An autocratic leadership tends to result in lower morale, lower productivity, higher turnover, and lower-quality decisions. Autocratic leadership doesn’t allow room for employee autonomy, and the best employees won’t tolerate that situation indefinitely. The rest will eventually become less engaged and less productive. This description is right on the mark. This is the type of leadership unfortunately is currently demonstrated by my current leadership. Long tenured employees have thought about leaving the company. As we know, employees leave their managers not the company. There is no longer a sense of belonging and feeling of added value when a manager changes procedures just for the sake of changing it without listening to the history of the reason for certain procedures and without reinventing the wheel. True, a manager should always looks at ways to improve, however, if it’s not broke then why fix it. Having a mentality of ” I’m the manager is not leadership. There is a difference of managing and leading.

  10. 11

    Leadership calls for the ability to lead, take effective decisions in time based on internal & external factors to the organization and ensure capable employees are challenged and the others are trained to perform to achieve organization targets.
    Today, the professional world is so vast and open that leaders can not afford to be Aristocratic in style. Though there could be crucial situations when you need to be one and you will be appreciated but truly not expected to be so in the long run.
    A servant style leader will ensure & inspire all but would be successful in certain business spheres where the ROI expectations are not high. Where the ROI risks are high it would call for quick decision making, plan shifts, skill acquisitions and when decisions are needed to be based on quick instincts this style does not work well.
    A democratic leader with the right acumen & people management skill should be able to guide the management towards a successful business. He/ She would always in a position to bridge between the employees and management as the need be.

  11. 12
    Peggy Nix

    Read Hersey and Blanchard. No one “style” is appropriate in all situations, with all direct reports. Situational Leadership still makes the most sense, even after all these years.

  12. 13

    This all sounds very noble and very CSR internally for an organisation….however lets look at the statements here.

    “the servant-leader shares power…….” “And while servant leadership puts people first, people goals are aligned with organizational goals. For example, coaxing someone who’s unsuitable for the job out of the organization…..”

    So……I wonder if those that have ‘shared power’ have ever coaxed a servant leader to leave the organisation? and….

    Does anybody know if anyone has truly & frankly questioned the performance metrics (if they were ever available) of their ‘servant-leader’ in this shared power relationship and continued to grow within the organisation?

    The reality is that there are asymmetric power relationships between leaders and employees.

    ” ..a servant leader “focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong … ”

    Not sure what the shareholders would say about that …but that’s another story…might have to rewrite and realign their corporate constitution to align with “Stakeholder entrepreneurship” style of business (see R. Edward Freeman)

    Employees, for various reasons occupy their roles. Some employees might be quite contented where they are…. why is it always necessary to grow? For example these same good people may be fantastic parents, community minded volunteers or have passions that in themselves are not financially sustainable and so….. they work. They may even be risk averse in an era where risk can lead to unemployment and loss of medical insurance. They perform to their metrics ….are they so bad that they have to be coaxed to leave because they don’t wish to grow? There will always be leaders followers and watchers we should just use their strengths in a collaborative leadership model.

    Well-being in itself is both a community and individual concept with many many associated elements. What framework is used and how it is measured by corporate organisations and then implemented by any ‘leader’ may in the end have come from an entirely different perspective to that of the employee. Does that mean the employee doesn’t fit the corporate culture or more likely the metrics are too narrow and the corporate culture not sufficiently accepting of employee diversity? So….how does you organisation measure well-being is the employee with the highest remuneration also the happiest? Is the employee that has sufficient income but goes home to see his family before they go to bed or has time to train and be active in a team sport happier?

  13. 15
    Charmaine Morris

    I don’t think you can take the distinction between the styles as literal in that no one person is predominantly democratic or autocratic but will draw on different styles for different situations. However, I do believe that persons do have a predominant style. You can easily identify an autocrat as the first response is always to direct without input. My experience with autocratic leaders is even when they are using a democratic style, they already have a decision and are waiting to see if the others will arrive at the same decision. It is important that managers understand their predominant style as this will help in how they relate to the leaders they manage.

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