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The Evils of Authoritarian Leadership

Updated: Sep 26, 2022

If you are in leadership roles or a keen management or leadership student. you would already know that broadly there are 3 styles of leadership. They are Autocratic or Authoritarian style, Democratic and then there is Laissez-faire. From ancient times till modern age, the style which has been used the most is the Authoritarian approach. This is irrespective of Capitalist or Communists or Rulers of various countries or now the Modern business world. Although only now we are seeing more and more companies and even countries going the democratic way. There is one more angle to look at this, that is cultural influences. You will find footprints of autocracy more in the eastern hemisphere than the Western Hemisphere. In the age of Globalization, these differences in leadership approaches are getting reduced but still you will find countries like Japan, India, China and others having different leadership style than that of Europe and America. Opinions will always vary from person to person on which style of leadership an organization should adopt, however I refuse to select any one of them as an universal approach to leadership. I have seen, read and realized enough to understand that each of these leadership style is very effective under different circumstances. I will prefer a leadership style which includes all of these 3 approaches and change the gear between these 3 as per situational demands. For example when you have an emergency, you do not need democracy or laissez-faire, that would be fatal, rather you need clear directions from one source and you trust and abide to get things done quickly and get out of that situation fast. When you are planning long term or finding solution to a recurring problem, democracy should kick in and so on. Saying that, I would still want the balance to be heavily tilted to a democratic and laissez-faire style and only use authoritarian style when absolutely needed. The evils of an authoritarian leadership style are much much more than the rest of the two styles. In this article, I will explain to you, why I say this.

When we hear certain words, certain visuals appear in our brain. Like when we hear authoritarian leaders we remember faces of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Genghis Khan etc. This event is known to all but I shall remind once again as this should never happen again. During the 2nd World War, Hitler's Nazi Army committed the most talked about Genocide in Modern Human History, they killed approximately six million European Jews and at least five million prisoners of war. This is pretty well known and well documented. Let me tell you a lesser known fact about this. Post the 2nd World War there were many Nazi armies who were caught and brought to trial. During those trials, they were asked again

and again on why did they commit this heinous crime ? Every time they kept telling. " We were just following orders of our superiors". A genocide was justified. No one could speak about morality or conscience. There was a big question left unanswered then, Are authoritarian leaders capable of robbing your humanity and conscience, or people who are lead by authoritarian leaders are prone to let go off their morality and conscience or are Germans specifically more prone to abide by authority by hook or crook?

In 1961, One of the most famous studies of obedience in psychology was carried out by Stanley Milgram, a psychologist at Yale University. Milgram conducted an experiment focusing on the conflict between obedience to authority and personal conscience. He examined justifications for acts of genocide offered by those accused at the World War II, Nuremberg War Criminal trials. Their defense often was based on "obedience" - that they were just following orders from their superiors.

Milgram started his experiment in July 1961 and he designed this as a controlled experiment. In this experiment there will be 3 roles, one will be student, one will be a teacher and the third one will be a Lab scientist who will eventually be the authority figure in this experiment. He selected participants (Students and Teachers) for his experiment by newspaper advertising for male participants to take part in a study of learning at Yale University. The procedure was that the participant was paired with another person and they drew lots to find out who would be the Student and who would be the ‘teacher.’ What these participants did not know is this Draw was fixed, irrespective of whatever piece of straw you select you will be the teacher since in both pieces of paper, teacher was mentioned. The Student was one of Milgram’s confederates (pretending to be a real participant).


Milgram's aim was to find out how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person. how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities.


The selected 160 volunteers were put Infront of a console of an electric shock generator, containing 30 switches labelled from 15v to 450v. Teachers were supposed to ask question to the students and each time failure will make the teacher trigger electric shock to the students. To make the teacher understand the impact of these shocks, several ranges were labelled on the console.



15V - 75V

Slight Shock

75V - 120V

Moderate Shock

135V - 180V

Strong Shock


375V - 420V

Danger Severe Shock

435V - 450V


The picture above shows the actual console used

Then those 160 volunteers were divided into 4 groups, each group containing 40 volunteers.

1st Group - Teacher and Student sat next to each other, teacher needs to place student's hand physically on the shock plate.

2nd Group- Teacher and Student sat in the same room so teacher should be able to see and hear the impact when student gets the electric shock.

3rd Group- Teacher and Student sat in different rooms so teacher can hear the screams and protests of the student when shock gets administered.

4th Group- Teacher and Student sat in different rooms which are bit far apart, so teacher cannot hear the screams of the student when shock gets administered.

All these teachers had a lab scientist standing next to him in white lab coat passing orders to the teachers. These lab scientists or experimenters were the ultimate authority in this experiment, the teachers must abide by the instruction to complete the test. The Student gave mainly wrong answers (on purpose), and for each of these, the teacher gave him an electric shock. When the teacher refused to administer a shock, the experimenter was to give a series of orders/prods to ensure they continued.

There were four prods and if one was not obeyed by teachers and they were willing to quit, then the experimenter read out the next prod, and so on.

Prod 1: Please continue. Prod 2: The experiment requires you to continue. Prod 3: It is absolutely essential that you continue. Prod 4: You have no other choice but to continue.

Before the experiment began, the guess was only 2% to 3% teachers will continue the experiment however when the results came in, it left everyone shocked. The results of the experiments are given below.





30% completed


40% completed


62.5% completed


65% completed

This experiment due to it's nature ended up being a highly criticized one. Those people who participated in the experiment, joined the experiment thinking that they are perfectly normal good people but that day they went back home knowing that they can kill someone. The other astonishing observation was, none of the volunteers asked for the state of students post the experiment was over, every one of them were consumed in their own doing, whether they will be held responsible for this ?

The surprises did not end here, there was one more awaiting. When those volunteers were eventually informed that no actual shocks were given to the student, those teachers who went almost all the way to complete task, started blaming the experimenter and even lashed out at the students, stating that they were stupid and actually deserved to get shocks.

Stanley Milgram's experiment proved to the whole world. what can authority do, that an autocratic leader can make otherwise ordinary good people, a cold ruthless sinner. Milgram's experiment happens in our offices every single day. A Leader at the top ask a manager to fire few people from his team, the leader being distant from the people never hesitates to take the decision but the manager who is close to those people hesitates at first. The manager might have seen, heard and touched those people himself, so the hesitation. However the harsh reality is, eventually most of the manager obeys the hierarchy and presses the button. The rest of his life, the manager suffers due to his conscience inside, however if any person blames him, he will immediately say something like this in his defense, " I did not want to but I was told to, I was forced to .. ". This experiment does not limit itself to only lay offs but think about denying someone a leave, trying to squeeze more productivity out of people in the name of LEAN, hiring someone showing a job description but making him or her do something different forcefully, enforcing a process when most of the people have not been taken into confidence, the list is endless.

My purpose of writing this article is not to demonize autocratic leaders but to explain to them their doings and its domino effect on rest of the organization. Leaders must understand their power, a bad leader can destroy the world but a good leader can save the world. A leader can bring out the good or evil from their people, they must use autocracy only when absolutely needed. Numbers creates abstraction, the list of people in a headcount file are not people, they are just numbers. Stalin understood numbers well, he said, " Death of one man is a tragedy, death of millions is just a statistics". So, I wish to have more leaders who understand the topic of an autocratic leadership advantages and disadvantages , I wish to have more empathetic leaders in 21st century, more of democracy and laissez-faire will do just fine, will do just fine, will do just fine.



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