Autocratic Versus Democratic Leadership

Wednesday, October 29th, 2008

I found this note I had made for a book I wrote a few years ago. This passage never made it into the book. As the election nears here in the US – and my deep interest in how people lead change — this seemed worth passing along.

Ronald Lippitt conducted experiments that used democratic leadership on one group of children and autocratic leadership on another. The eleven and twelve-year-old volunteers were divided into the two groups to create a balance of interpersonal and leadership skills. The task to make masks was the same in both groups. The only thing that was different was the atmosphere created by the teacher.

There was marked difference in the behavior of the two groups. In the authoritarian group, there was thirty times as much hostile domination, more demand for attention, and much more hostile criticism. In the autocratically run group, children couldn’t question or combat the teacher, so they identified another student as a scapegoat.

Kurt Lewin reports, “One may ask whether these results are not due merely to individual differences. A number of facts rule out this explanation, although of course individual differences always play a role. Of particular interest was the transfer of one of the children from the autocratic group to the democratic group, and of another from the democratic to the autocratic one. Before the transfer the differences between the two children was the same as between the two groups they belonged to; namely the autocratic child was more dominating and less friendly and objective than the democratic one. However, after the transfer the behavior changed so that the previously autocratic child now became the less dominating and more friendly and objective child. In other words, the behavior of the children mirrored very quickly the atmosphere of the group in which they moved.”[i]

[i] Lewin, Kurt. Resolving Social Conflicts. American Psychological Association. Washington, DC. 1997 (originally published 1948.) Pages 61-65