Home / Applying Theory in Practice / Flawed Conceptions of Leadership: Autocratic and Democratic Styles


As colleges get more and more selective, applicants must do more and more to distinguish themselves in a crowded and competitive pool of candidates. One of the most overused – and perhaps misunderstood – buzzwords that many potential college applicants use to try to stand out from the rest of the pack is “leadership.” However, with so many applicants attempting to mold themselves around a multifaceted concept for the sake of differentiation, the definition of leadership becomes obfuscated in the quest to sell one’s self.

A 2014 piece in The Atlantic describes the modern college application process. Today’s college-bound student has to work hard to prove to their desired institution that they are most worthy applicant. However, the article makes the point that by hyper-emphasizing stereotypical (autocratic) leadership roles, the importance of followership gets swept under the rug. The author poses the question “Why is leading the chess team is inherently more valuable than being a contributing member?”

In the article One-dimensional and two-dimensional leadership styles by Nikola Stefanovic, autocratic and democratic styles of leadership are compared as counterpoints and as two extremes on a range. Stefanovic further breaks down the varying types of leadership into four styles – directing and coaching on the autocratic side of the leadership spectrum, and participating and delegating on the democratic side. Based on one of the most popular two-dimensional matrices from the Center of Leadership Studies, this way of analyzing leadership suggests that the flow of leadership goes both from leader to follower, and follower to leader, rather than a top-down structure in which the leader monopolizes control. Another article from Human Relations expands on the idea of democratic leadership, claiming that authority and leadership are two distinct concepts and should be treated as such. Leadership through this lens is viewed as a set of behaviors rather than any sort of position, and effective democratic leadership is actively cultivated as an end in and of itself as opposed to simply being a means to concentrate and wield authority.

Maybe then, the problem posed in the Atlantic article is that the form of leadership that appears to be the most desired on college applications focuses too heavily on the autocratic side of leadership without acknowledging that successful individuals, groups, and organizations require good followers – an idea recently highlighted in The New York Times as well. In the case of the list of desirable qualities in potential college applicants from Harvard, the way that being a “self-confident leader” is posited inherently eschews any notions success in the follower or the team player role. This bias towards strictly autocratic forms of leadership so readily observable in the collegiate realm, is likely why it’s so pervasive in the modern workplace.


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