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Authoritative versus Authoritarian Leadership

It’s fascinating to me that “authoritarian leadership” is a recognized leadership style, while “authoritative leadership” seldom if ever makes it into the discussion–– Except at SENSEI LEADER workshops! “Authoritarian” leadership is also called “autocratic” and sometimes even “dictatorial.” But dictatorship is the exact opposite of leadership. A leader is someone with the ability to attract WILLING followers. Emphasis on the word “willing.” A dictator is someone who rules by fear, force or coercion.

In leadership study, the authoritarian leader is one who exercises complete or nearly complete control over others. I’d argue that in most instances, the only way to exercise complete control is through fear, force or coercion. Now this may sound strange, but sometimes we do want a dictator or an authoritarian around. We usually tolerate or sometimes even desire the dictator when the proverbial poop is hitting the proverbial fan. In a crises, we sometimes want someone who can come in, chop heads, do what is necessary but unpleasant and just get the job done. After the mission is accomplished, we usually don’t want the dictator around anymore. An “authoritative leader” has a much different profile. Authoritative implies that the leader is extremely competent, recognized as an “authority” in his or her field and is someone worthy of trust––sometimes even admiration. An authoritative leader is still someone who attracts willing followers––often by virtue of that person’s knowledge, wisdom and experience.

Daniel Goleman interestingly highlights authoritative rather than authoritarian leadership in his work on “Emotional Intelligence.” That’s because the authoritative leader is still focused on the interpersonal aspects of leadership. The problem is that there can be a razor’s edge difference between the two and it’s sometimes all too easy to slide from authoritative to authoritarian. I call this the “Authoritarian Slip.” The Slip can happen with best intentions and unfortunately, can become a habit. Worst of all, you may not even be aware that it’s happening––especially when you’re still producing results. The downside is that a consistent authoritarian style, unless your culture is completely geared toward that style, can be extremely demotivating, demoralizing and stifling over time. We know what motivates people. Daniel Pink famously came up with three universal motivators and I’m on board with all three:

  • Autonomy

  • Mastery

  • Purpose

Authoritarian leadership may have a purpose, and your people may buy in to that purpose––at least in the short run. Too much authoritarian leadership becomes dictatorial, and autonomy and individual development (mastery) are often at odds with the authoritarian. Authoritative leadership on the other hand can work nicely with all three motivators––providing the leader is willing to share. An authoritative leader can be a transformational leader giving people opportunities to grow and develop––to cultivate their sense of autonomy and mastery. And part of what makes someone an effective authoritative leader may be an extremely well-developed sense of purpose. This can be a tremendous asset––but again only if the leader is willing and able to share that purpose. Anytime I discuss leadership styles I emphasize the first of the 8 STRATEGIES highlighted in THE SENSEI LEADER: “Never limit yourself to one leadership style.” Effective leaders are comfortable and articulate in several leadership styles and adapt their style to fit the situation, time and place. Authoritarian, even dictatorial tactics may be appropriate in certain situations––just be careful of the Authoritarian Slip. Remember that dictators always have to worry about revolt!

Graphic courtesy of Rattigon and

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