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Leadership Styles 101 Participative vs Autocratic Leadership

Updated on August 8, 2012

Participative or Autocratic?

Participative vs Autocratic Leadership the 4 Critical Questions

Few questions are more central to the contemporary study of leadership effectiveness than those that contrast the Participative and Autocratic Leadership styles in modern organizations.

Faced with rapidly increasing complexities and the incredible challenges in our most important human and organizational systems (i.e. teams, organizations, states, countries, global economies etc.), leaders, students and consultants alike are increasingly asking:

1. What is the real definition, essence and limitation of the Participative leadership Style?

1. How does Participative Leadership compare to Autocratic Leadership?

2. Are there specific types of environmental and strategic situations or conditions that prioritize the Participative Leadership over the Autocratic Leadership Styles?

3. When if ever is the Autocratic Leadership Style the most effective choice?

4. What kind of leadership do we most need when followers don’t have the knowledge, skills and experience to make critical strategic decisions (for example when economic complexities exceed their individual abilities to problem solve)?

5. What's the best leadership style for real high performance teamwork?

Are you a Participative Leader?

Participative Leadership Defined

In simple terms, the word “Participative” in the Participative Leadership Style is roughly interchanged with the popular understanding of the word “Democratic”.

It implies that all stakeholders within a specific human and organizational system have an equal share in defining the basic goals, strategies and values that define their shared activities and the overall direction they move in together. It also implies that the people in question are all ready, willing and able to row in the same direction together.

One of the biggest sources of support for the democratic dimensions of the participative leadership style are the decades worth of countless books, papers and case studies that tout the tremendous ability this attribute has to harness and focus the intrinsic motivation of employees (the genuine internal desire and passion).

Democratic leaders are more inclined to facilitate the alignment of followers with the kinds of work for which they are most passionate and skilled. Helping people connect with the kind of goals and tasks they are genuinely passionate about is an effective way of increasing motivation and performance.

According to this view, the more people are involved in framing their own goals an action steps, the more internally committed they will be to actually attaining those goals.

Let’s start by getting a few pieces of essential but dry organizational theory under our belts. We’ll need these point in order to properly understand some of the most critical leadership qualities that distinguish the participative and autocratic leadership styles.

Then we can we can really jump in and explore some of the most exciting and important leadership questions of this century!

What is a Healthy Organization?

Organizations as Organic Open Systems

Most organizational-leadership researchers study organizations through the basic academic lenses of “open systems theory”.

In open systems theory the organization is viewed as a “complex organic system” that strives to learn (organizational learning) and adapt to its environment.

Like a biological organism, organizational systems need access to “life sustaining resources”. They need to form strategies for cooperating with or out-performing their main competitors, based on the scarcity or abundance of those resources.

The recent popular metaphors of the “lean” vs the “anorexic” organizations reflect the open systems perspective in organizational science.

It’s the basic role of the Organization Development consultant to help build or re-build the “healthy organization”.But what exactly “is” a healthy organization? Who decides and why?

Individual Group and Organization

The 3 Organizational Levels

The organization works towards adapting to its environment by regulating itself and making changes at 3 basic organizational levels. Students of leadership focus much of their analysis on these 3 basic levels to form and test their theories and strategies.

The 3 organizational levels include the individual level (individual stakeholders, employees), the group level (departments, work groups, interdependent and cross-functional teams) and the organizational or organization wide level (the business, corporation or institution taken as a whole unit of analysis).

The Critical Role of Strategic Analysis

Strategy Formation Aligning the Internal and External Organizational Environments

The organizational level is usually studied with an equal emphasis on the internal organization (organizational systems, structures, processes and culture) and on how the internal organization interacts with the external environment (incoming resources including outgoing products/services, information flow, resource-competition and limits or constraints on those resources).

A common strategic planning tool is called a "SWOT Analysis" in which internal and external organizational factors are systematically explored in terms of their internal vs external strengths, along with any threats to the organization or any of its sub systems, structures or processes.

In a corporate business organization, for example, a “participative leader” at the middle management level will present her team with the task of developing very specific “performance goals” base on the less precise strategic targets that are handed down form the senior management team.

That business strategy in turn, is based on the senior leadership’s assessment of the organizations external and internal environments. For example, the executive leadership will do their best to ask and answer key strategic questions like:

1. What do our customers really need and want?

2. What are our serious competitors doing that we can do better and cheaper?

3. What are the company’s competitive strengths and what changes can we make in our internal systems, structures, processes and culture to outperform the competition and exceed customer’s quality expectations?

4. What resources do our “internal customers”, those within our human organizational system, need to function properly (i.e. budget, technology, training, equipment etc)? What’s the best way to make sure that every part of the organization gets what it needs to function optimally?

5. When resources are scarce, how should they be distributed or allocated strategically? Competition for scarce resources within an organization is often a major source of conflict and organizational dysfunction. For example, when new products or services are needed, there may be increased resource allocations to research and development units and budgetary cuts for other units.

Participative leaders also build and sustain strong organizational cultures that reduce, buffer or even avoid the negative impacts of challenges like resource scarcity. When organizational transparency is a cultural norm, employees and work groups are more likely to accept strategic decisions because they understand the logic and thinking behind them. In autocratic cultures employees are often unaware of why organizational changes are taking place, and are more likely to respond negatively, in many cases.

Think of the strategic questions that the senior leadership team of a major car company would ask themselves. They’d want to know what kind of cars customers really wanted or needed.Should they focus on more expensive hybrid vehicles or do their best to make highly fuel efficient compact cars.

Should they invest their research and development budget in new green and alternative fuel technologies? Should they focus on increasing the efficiency and environmental friendliness of existing engine technology?

What can customers actually afford and what kind of tax benefits and production technologies (environmental resources) can we bring into our organization to make the best cars possible?

The final business strategy that results from these key leadership questions must then be translated into specific and concrete goals. These are the action steps that transform the abstract business strategy into a tangible organizational reality, - its final products or outputs.

To better understand the participative leadership style, let’s look at one of its best real world examples: “High Performance Team Leadership.” This is where those abstract strategic-goals become top quality final products and services through concrete team performance strategies and work flows.

Next in The Leadership Styles 101 Series:


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