Successful companies understand the importance of leadership in bringing about organizational success. That’s why leadership skills often top the list of competencies hiring managers look for when reviewing job applications.

But the concept of “leadership” is not as black and white as you might think. There are many leadership styles, each of which can be leveraged in different scenarios to achieve results. Truly effective leaders are capable of shifting their approach depending on what they're trying to accomplish—tailoring their style to meet the needs of their team.

Authoritative leadership is one style that can be incredibly effective in certain scenarios. Here's an overview of what authoritative leadership is, how it differs from other leadership styles, and the pros and cons you should keep in mind when considering this approach.

What Does It Mean to Be an Authoritative Leader?

The authoritative leadership style was first defined in 2002 by Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership. Typically, it's discussed alongside other leadership approaches defined by the author: Coaching, Affiliative, Democratic, Coercive, and Pacesetting. While all of these styles have the potential to be effective when deployed in the right situation, authoritative leadership is often viewed as one of the more positive and harmonious of them.

Characteristics of Authoritative Leadership

Authoritative leaders, also called visionary leaders, tend to approach leadership like a mentor guiding a mentee. Instead of telling their team to follow instructions and do as they say, authoritative leaders put themselves in the scenario and utilize a “come with me” approach. They have a firm understanding of the challenges to overcome and the goals to reach, and have a clear vision for achieving success.

Authoritative leaders inspire motivation. They offer direction, guidance, and feedback to maintain enthusiasm and a sense of accomplishment throughout a project or endeavor.

At its heart, authoritative leadership depends on a thoroughly developed sense of emotional intelligence. To be effective, authoritative leaders must demonstrate certain emotional intelligence competencies, such as:

  • Self-confidence, to develop a vision and inspire others to follow it
  • Empathy, to understand and anticipate the emotions felt by team members at key junctures during a project
  • Ability to adapt, to identify and remove barriers to change that may be required for success

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Authoritative vs. Authoritarian Leadership

While the terms “authoritative” and “authoritarian” leadership sound similar—and are often used interchangeably—they are very different.

Authoritative leaders guide their team by example and inspire progression toward a common goal, whereas authoritarian leaders rely on commands and demand compliance without question. Authoritative leaders say, “Come with me;” authoritarian leaders say, “Do what I tell you.” Authoritative leaders view success as something to be shared by the team; authoritarian leaders view success as stemming from themselves.

While authoritarian leadership, also called commanding leadership, is often viewed as a more negative approach, it can be highly effective in the right circumstances, particularly when a company or organization needs firm guidance through a crisis or challenge.

Pros and Cons of Authoritative Leadership

If you're considering incorporating the authoritative leadership style into your management processes, it’s essential to understand the pros and cons of the technique so that you can determine when it is—and isn’t—appropriate to leverage.

Pros of Authoritative Leadership

  • Authoritative leaders bring clarity: They are effective because of their ability to inspire, motivate, and influence their team. Often, this motivation stems from their ability to understand a company’s strategic goals and communicate them in a way that's easy for employees to follow. When everyone knows what the organization is striving toward, it's easy to ensure everyone is aligned.
  • Authoritative leaders provide direction and vision: They approach projects and initiatives from a position of confidence. They have a clear vision of what success looks like, and give their team members clear direction and constructive feedback as they work toward organizational goals.
  • Authoritative leaders breed goodwill: For the authoritative leadership style to work, a person must approach their team from a position of empathy. By understanding the personal and professional emotions, desires, and worries of a team member, an authoritative leader is better able to identify potential roadblocks to performance and remove them, while simultaneously incentivizing success.

Cons of Authoritative Leadership

  • Authoritative leaders can appear overbearing: For employees who are accustomed to having free reign over how they complete tasks, work toward company goals, and contribute to overhead, the prescriptive approach of the authoritative leadership style can appear somewhat overbearing. This can be especially true for young leaders who are responsible for overseeing older or more experienced colleagues.
  • Authoritative leaders must own their mistakes: For authoritative leadership to be effective, team members must be given a clear goal to work toward and instructions for getting there. This requires the manager to have the conviction to make a decision and stand by their choice. While other leadership styles may depend upon consensus to identify and prioritize goals, where everyone involved shares in the success and failure, the authoritative approach places the risk of failure purely on the shoulders of the leader.

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When to Use an Authoritative Leadership Style

Authoritative leadership can be particularly well suited for businesses undergoing a period of struggle or change. A department or team not meeting its goals in recent quarters; a shift in company ownership, leadership, or structure; a corporate turnaround after a decline; or a desire to innovate and change organizationally can all be appropriate situations for an authoritative approach.

It isn’t, however, applicable to all business challenges. A skilled leader is one who can tailor their leadership style to whatever scenario they find themselves in.

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Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.