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Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future (2018)

“…Individuals pursuing a more autocratic style of leadership are likely to be more calculating, self-interested, have a higher need for power…”

Harms, P. D., Wood, D., Landay, K., Lester, P. B., & Lester, G. V. (2017)
The Leadership Quarterly, Volume 29, Issue 1, February 2018
Image: ‘The School of Athens’ (detail), by Raphael, 1509. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Despite a long history within the field of leadership, the subject of authoritarianism and how it influences leadership and leadership processes has been neglected in recent decades. However, recent global events make it clear that a better understanding of authoritarianism is needed and that leadership researchers would benefit from a renewed interest in studying why followers embrace autocratic leaders.

The paper reviews some of the earliest studies of authoritarianism within the field of leadership, in order to discuss its modern-day relevance to organisations and nation-states. It begins by addressing the one of the key questions in the field of leadership: “Why do free people willingly choose leaders who will restrict their liberty?”.

“Autocratic leadership [as used throughout the paper] is generally understood to reflect a particular style of leadership where power and authority are concentrated in the leader, whereas authoritarian leadership reflects a domineering style that generally has negative implications.”

Whilst research in the field of authoritarianism appeared to dissipate by the 1980’s, the general public have become increasingly interested in the topic, “reflected in Google searches for “authoritarian,” “authoritarianism,” and “autocratic” which have all doubled or tripled in frequency over the past decade even as searches for other leadership-related terms such as “transformational leadership” have stagnated.”

“Because of its focus on traditional values and deference to authority, it should be no surprise that authoritarianism (and particularly right-wing authoritarianism) is considered not just a pattern of behavior, but one that can be understood in terms of the socio-political values that drive those behaviors.”

Authoritarianism is also frequently compared and contrasted with Social Dominance Orientation (SDO), which is characterized by holding an attitude that some social groups are superior to others (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994; Sidanius & Pratto, 1999)…characterized by power, achievement, and hedonism needs.”

“…If feelings of insecurity and threat are to serve as some of the most important antecedents of authoritarian thinking and behavior, then it would make sense instead to focus on developing the social, psychological, and economic resources of individuals so that they no longer feel it is necessary or desirable to relinquish their freedoms to powerful leaders.”

Read the full paper here: Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future

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