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Differences Between Autocratic & Democratic Leadership

by Jeremy C Bradley, Demand Media Google

    Autocratic and democratic leadership styles are often talked about in a political context, however they manifest themselves in everyday life as well. Political, community and business leaders come in many different varieties. Researchers have found that there are two main leadership types: autocratic, in which authority resides in a single person; and democratic, in which the people under a leadership's authority have a say in their organization's direction. A third type of leadership, called delegative, is more characteristic of rulers who let their followers make their own decisions without any guidance.

    Research on Leadership Styles

    In 1939, psychologist Kurt Lewin and his research team set out to characterize various styles of leadership. In Lewin's study, school children were assigned to one of three groups. Each group had a leader characterized as autocratic, democratic, or delegative. The children were instructed by the leader to complete an arts and crafts project. Researchers observed the children's behavior in response to the varying leadership styles. In 2009, organizational psychologists Richard L. Daft and Andrew Pirola-Merlo revisited Lewin's study to explain how autocratic, democratic and delegative leadership styles continue to be relevant.

    Autocratic Leadership

    Autocratic or authoritarian leaders create a strict divide between the one giving the orders and those expected to follow them. As such, autocrats tend to make decisions independently, which can result in abuse of power and make their followers feel excluded. Lewin found that creativity decreased under autocratic leadership. Daft and Pirola-Merlo identify the autocratic leadership style as ruler-centered. Authority is centralized and power is derived from being in strict control of situations. In an organizational context, employees are not asked for their input. In a political setting, constituents would simply be expected to follow the leader's demands. This style may be used exclusively by a leader, or it may be employed when there is little time to make decisions or consult others.

    Democratic Leadership

    Lewin discovered that democratic leaders are generally more effective than autocrats. Democratic leaders offer guidance to their team members and seek their input on making decisions. In Lewin's study, the children in the democratic group had less output than the authoritarian group but their work was of higher quality. Daft and Pirola-Merlo's work furthers this insight, noting that democratic leaders encourage group members to participate but retain final say-so over important matters. This style creates balance, helps team members feel valued and aligns more with Western democratic governments.

    Delegative Leadership

    The final form of leadership identified by Lewin and his team is called "delegative leadership." However, delegative leaders do very little in the way of "leading." Delegative leadership is often called laissez-faire because the leader offers almost no guidance to group members. In Lewin's study, the children in the delegative group were the least productive. They had no direction and therefore no real output. However, Daft and Pirola-Merlo note that delegative leadership can be effective if group members are qualified in their field. Similarly, laissez-faire policies are often advocated in economics on grounds that free trade functions best with minimal government interference.

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    About the Author

    Jeremy C Bradley works in the fields of legal philosophy and business administration. He is appointed to lectureships at London School of Business and Finance and at Glion Institute. Bradley holds a Master of Business Administration and is pursuing a Ph.D. in law.

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