Autocratic Leadership – Leadership Styles

Autocratic Leadership – Leadership Styles!

Leadership Styles – is there a time and place for the Commander?

Casualty (series 4)

When I was a young nurse, autocratic leadership was still common.

It was the very early seventies. In those days, in Nursing, you learned to take orders and, as you gained experience and position, you learned to give them.

No, you didn’t shout like a drill sergeant!

You learned to use a certain tone in the voice that didn’t invite questions or equivocation!  All who joined the organisation and expected to thrive learned to comply – they gave their consent.  Some left pretty quickly!

Even then, times were beginning to change and by the time I left nursing, there were very few real autocrats still around.

Today, it is hard for me to remember what it was like to be part of such an organisation.

But there were occasions when an autocratic approach and the ability to command were invaluable; for example in a real medical emergency.

We were well trained and in most  emergencies everyone knew what was expected of them and slotted into their place.  The leader gave the orders and, in those circumstances, we obeyed. I saw several lives saved as a result of our ability to act as one body and give our consent to be led without question.

But it put a huge responsibility on the leader!

Leadership is awe-inspiring

When I found myself leading the team, I found it awe inspiring to have someone’s life in my hands.

I had authority, but I had responsibility as well and I was accountable for the decisions I made.

I was grateful for my training and I was very grateful for my team and the relationships we had built up outside of the emergency situation.

Yes I am sure there is still a place on some occasions for the Commander and an authoritative style of leadership!  But without the consent of a good team built on participation and engagement, with real relationships and care for each member, I’m sure no one achieves great things.

Wendy Smith is a career consultant, life coach and business coach with depth of experience in management, coaching and personal development. That experience means she is equally at home helping clients find a new career direction, starting-up new businesses or dealing with life’s more challenging personal issues. You can contact her at

Wendy has written a little eBook on how to get on with your boss and a book on job search – you can find her books on Amazon at this link


4 Replies to “Autocratic Leadership – Leadership Styles”

  1. Wendy – Yes! Thanks for raising and writing about this topic. It is not only emergencies that are best handled by way of command or authority centered leadership.

    We moved a week ago, and I was truly grateful that one person was in charge as I watched 4 large strong grown men move our precious belongings, especially hand crafted furniture, down and then up narrow stairways.

    1. Thanks Anne, yes isn’t it reassuring when precious things are involved to see them in the hands of the strong, with clear leadership! I hope your move went well and that you are now enjoying your new surroundings!

  2. Thanks for the provocative post, Wendy. The choice of when and how “Commander” forms of leadership are a good choice is one that bedevils organizations today. Many of our models are military, but we see those models almost exclusively in crisis situations where the “Commander” is necessary and not in roles of preparation and training that take up more of a military commander’s time.

    My experience says that the “Commander” role is necessary when time is a factor and expertise is critical. Hierarchies are much better at mobilizing resources that groups and a Commander is the single point form of hierarchy. In most business situations, though we get better decision, especially for resource allocation, when group process plays a role.

    That said, most of the official bosses out there are “default deciders” for their team. I often suggest to bosses that they make that explicit and give preference to group process, realizing that if the group can’t reach a consensus or collaborative decision by the time one must be made, that the boss will make the decision, taking group discussion into account.

    1. Thanks Wally, I agree with you that the Commander role should be exceptional and that better decisions emerge when a group process is in place, albeit that the boss becomes the default decider. But your post raised an interesting issue for me! That is how, and how well, crisis management gets handled in a flat/matrix organisation and does it default to one commander? The one matrix organisation that I know well defaults to hierarchy or one commander under pressure sometimes along formal, agreed lines but not always and the quality of the response varies.

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