Fresh Look – The paradox of authoritarian leadership success

Those of us interested in office politics explain the success of strict, detail-oriented, centralized leaders by contending that they must have enormous political power. Unless they rose to their positions through luck, we find ourselves admiring the political moves these leaders have taken to attain such awesome power. However, we are also aware that authoritarian leadership is highly unpopular with followers.[1] Accordingly, our conclusion is that dictatorial leaders can only be successful in the short-run and that ultimately their sources of power will weaken.

This is a compelling argument, but it overlooks one important factor—the organizational environment. As a new study reveals, harsh economic conditions where resources are scarce favor authoritarian leadership.[2] This means that authoritarian leaders can sustain their power as long as these conditions persist, and there is no reason to expect them to subside because of subordinate resentment.

So, if you work for a leader who exerts absolute control and demands unquestioned obedience, they may continue behaving in a commanding fashion, require absolute compliance, and punish you if you don’t follow established rules and procedures. Economic conditions rather than political popularity with their followers will sustain them.

[1] X. Chen, M. Eberly, T. Chiang, J. Farh & B. Cheng. 2014. Affective trust in Chinese leaders: Linking paternalistic leadership to employee performance. Journal of Management, 40: 796–819.
[2] X. Huang, E. Xu, W. Chiu, C. Lam & J. Farh. 2015. When authoritarian leaders outperform transformational leaders: Firm performance in a harsh economic environment. Academy of Management Discoveries, 1 (2): 180–200.