Beyond Autocratic Leadership
Updated: Mar 18, 2022
‘That was f—king s—t, mate. That’s f—king s—t… you’re s—t. You shouldn’t be here.’
- Eddie Jones
When you think of autocratic leadership it’s likely you’ll think of a sports coach. Perhaps it’s that horrible sports teacher at school that made you run that extra mile.
The media love these kinds of leaders.
Eddie Jones is one autocratic leadership example. But he also shows how leadership styles are flexible and evolve over time.
In 2015 he orchestrated one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.
When he became Head coach of the Japan Rugby team, they had never won a World Cup game. In fact, Eddie labelled Japan a ‘Joke Team’.
To turn the team around the coaching was brutal. The team were pushed beyond their limits. Players would even hide under tables when Eddie entered the room.
Fear of the leader is a perfect autocratic leadership example.
This direct, candid and brutal approach is shown in a media interview. Eddie publically shames the Japan captain for his attitude.
“I yelled and screamed at half-time like a schoolteacher, and in the second half we don't have a go. Why?” Jones says, pausing just long enough to allow the interpreter to translate his vitriol. “The players don't want to win enough. They don't want to change enough. So I will have to change the players. I’m sick of it."
What is Autocratic Leadership?
Autocratic leadership, also known as authoritarian leadership, is a leadership style characterized by control. The leader controls all decisions and gathers little input from group members. Autocratic leaders typically make choices based on their ideas and judgments. They rarely accept advice from followers.
This leadership style gets a bad reputation. But in the right environment, it can get results.
This is demonstrated by what happened in Brighton, 2015.
It is Japan's first game at Rugby World Cup 2015. They face mighty South Africa. Underdogs, Japan were expected to continue their losing streak.
It was time to see if the autocratic leadership style would pay off.
The final score: South Africa 32 Japan 34
Eddie had masterminded one of the biggest upsets in sporting history.
Autocratic leadership had delivered results.
But this leadership style has many drawbacks. The human cost can be high.
There is no doubt that early in my career I was intolerant of people who didn’t have the same commitment and the same ethos as I did. I could have treated people better, there is no doubt about that. I’m not going to hide away from it.
- Eddie Jones
Stress, burnout and anxiety are not uncommon amongst teams led by autocrats.
In the workplace, autocratic leaders have a toxic reputation. When they walk into a room fear sets in. Everyone is on edge waiting for the next leadership rant.
Different people respond to different leadership styles. For some, an autocratic leadership style can get results. Whilst others crumble under the pressure.
The best leaders are flexible. They adopt leadership styles based upon the situation.
Eddie is a great example of how leadership styles evolve. He is often described as a chameleon because of his ability to flex his leadership approach.
In his latest book, Leadership, Eddie Jones shares more about his style.
Now leading the England Rugby team, autocratic leadership is not his primary approach.
The old dictator of a coach shouting out a team doesn’t work anymore.
Servant leadership is getting the results. Self-organization, empowerment and autonomy are the keys to performance.
Eddie is focusing on making fewer decisions. Moving decision making to the team.
For example, every Monday morning the players run the training schedule. There is no input from the coaches, the players drive the agenda.
All the research shows that, if teams think through problems themselves, rather than being told, the chances of them then owning and solving the problem will be much higher.
- Eddie Jones
In most high-performance environments, a coaching leadership style gets results. It’s shown to be the best way to help people unlock their potential.
In the workplace, most leaders have teams of highly skilled “knowledge workers”. These teams are working on hard, complex problems. Where there is no one obvious answer. They must deploy a range of skills to solve these problems.
An autocratic style in these complex situations leads to negative results. The solutions chosen are poor, the leader becomes a bottleneck and team members disengage.
A coaching leadership style has a sharp contrast with autocratic leadership.
Coaching is less about telling and more about asking. The coach is more like a guide than a dictator. The goal is to delegate many decisions to the team.
The challenge for every leader is knowing when to take an autocratic approach vs a coaching style. When to tell vs to ask. When to share advice vs hold it back.
Eddie Jones shows there is no single answer. Leadership is situational. The most important thing a leader can do is build flexibility. Become more comfortable adopting many styles of leaders.
Continuously reflecting and gaining feedback.
The only reliable advantage in life, business or sport, is to learn faster than the opposition.
- Eddie Jones