Steve Jobs was described as an autocratic leader during his time at Apple. His leadership style, fast-decision making and eye for detail were crucial for achieving Apple’s success.
“Being the main communicator and main business decider of things. He was very good at [that]”, said Steve Wozniak about Steve Jobs’ leadership style. On the other hand, the British-American entrepreneur and author Andrew Keen commented, “There is no democracy at Apple […] It is Steve’s company – pursuing his vision, at his pace, with his team, making his products”.
What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership describes a leader who has absolute power and control in every part of a business. These leaders like to control everything related to work, from the company’s policies, vision and goals to employees’ work style.
It’s more common to find autocratic leadership in small businesses than in big corporations. It offers a good starting point for the management. Small companies don’t have many employees, and running a company under this leadership style is easy.
Autocratic leadership enables fast decision-making and, among other things, provides a structure for inexperienced teams. However, this leadership style may not be suitable when you are aiming to foster team collaboration.
Steve Jobs’ Autocratic Leadership
Steve Jobs founded Apple in 1976. In 1985, he was forced to leave Apple, amongst many reasons for his intense, controlling leadership style. Nevertheless, with the company plummeting shortly afterwards, in 1997, he was asked to return to Apple to save the company from bankruptcy, which he did perfectly.
He was impatient and high expectancy traits portrayed him as a tough boss to work with. He liked to work with the best people in their field, and yes, he didn’t have a good reputation when it came to being friendly or polite with others. In his interview with Walter Isaacson, he told Isaacson about his being tough “I don’t think I run roughshod over people,” and added, “but if something sucks, I tell people to their face. It’s my job to be honest.”
Steve Jobs’ autocratic leadership worked well in Apple when he was the CEO. He was described as one of our times’ strong and successful leaders, alongside Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others.
When is Autocratic Leadership Effective?
Even though others have criticised Jobs’ leadership, his autocratic leadership style clearly turned Apple into one of the most successful companies out there. In the following passages, we’d like to have a closer look at autocratic leadership and see under which circumstances it can work.
An autocratic leader is needed for quick and efficient solutions to complex problems. In these environments, autocratic leadership provides the direction that may be lacking when teams are inexperienced.
People who worked with Steve Jobs said he was quick at making critical decisions about products. For instance, Jony Ive talked about the decision process for the colours of the first iMacs, “in most places that decision would have taken months. Steve did it in a half-hour.”
Effective Handling of Pressure
In stressful situations when the company needs to solve short-term and urgent issues, autocratic leaders are the ones who are in charge of the situation. Their experience and expertise allow them to solve the issues quickly.
Steve Jobs rejoined Apple in 1997 when the company was going bankrupt. He dealt with the pressure effectively, saved the company and turned it into a profitable one.
In start-ups, it’s normal to see employees struggling with tasks. Autocratic leadership works well under these circumstances as those in charge assign tasks to employees, providing guidelines and control the whole process. This creates an easy-to-follow structure for the employees and themselves.
When Is Autocratic Leadership Disadvantageous?
Like every other leadership style, autocratic leadership comes with some downsides:
Steve Jobs struggled with his insane workload. Many people even say it was the reason for his death. When you are keen to participate in every part of the product journey, you’ll find yourself working 16 hour days and having to trouble shoot on a regular basis. This can be immensely stressful and lead to sever burn out. Most leaders are not capable of keeping an autocratic style as organisations grow. Not everyone can be like Steve Jobs and summon the same amount of energy.
Autocratic leaders like to control everything. Because of that, they tend to micromanage their employees, discouraging their input and feedback. This causes trust problems within the company and ultimately hurts productivity. If leaders are not as inspiring as Steve Jobs, they will run into trust problems and even lose many great employees.
Autocratic leaders set very high goals and expectations, which are often not clearly communicated to the team. They expect the business to run the way they envision it, but sometimes it’s hard for the team to grasp what their leader is thinking. They must set clear guidelines and make the team aware of them.
Moreover, autocratic leaders often communicate criticism very poorly. Both former employees and journalists often mentioned Steve Jobs’ communication problems. For example, they especially disliked how he handled firing people and how he raged when he didn’t like things.
Autocratic leadership creates dependency in the workplace. Employees will need feedback from their leader before taking further steps. Especially when a company is sold and such a leader leaves, the company often is in huge trouble. If one company is built on the total dependence of one person, that person’s fate determines the fate of the company.
An autocratic leader is the only one in charge of any process that eventually damages creativity. This leadership style doesn’t offer enough space for employees to let their creativity run free. Usually, employees end up keeping their ideas to themselves. In the long run, it affects the employees’ creativity and productivity.
That’s a Wrap
Today, Apple is a well-known brand. Even though Steve Jobs’ was highly criticised for his leadership style, we know that his way of running Apple played a role in the company’s success.
Due to its nature, autocratic leadership is not suitable for every business, especially since today’s business world focuses on teamwork. However, in the early stages of a business, autocratic leadership can help run a business smoothly until you find a more suitable structure for your growing team. And, for those with the energy, skillset, and stamina of Steve Jobs, continuing an autocratic leadership style might even work way beyond the company having achieved unicorn status.