To Understand Autocratic Followers, Strip Research of Bias

To Understand Autocratic Followers, Strip Research of Bias

Dr. Peter Harms

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The reasons many people choose to follow autocratic leaders vary across time, culture and circumstances, but past efforts to understand these reasons are often dismissive of those who do and frequently label such followers as prejudicial or uninformed.

The time is right, it seems, for a renewed effort to understand autocratic leaders and their followers without resorting to methods that strip away assumptions of value to the characteristics of followers of autocratic leaders, according to a recent paper by Dr. Peter Harms, assistant professor of management in the Culverhouse College of Commerce at The University of Alabama.

Harms is the lead author on the paper “Autocratic leaders and authoritarian followers revisited: A review and agenda for the future” recently published in The Leadership Quarterly.

“In the political world of today, we want to get a clearer sense of the nature of autocratic leadership and understand why people would come to embrace autocratic leaders,” Harms said.

Harms found there has been a substantial rise in Google search traffic for people trying to find out more about authoritarianism and autocratic leadership, but there has not been a lot of recent academic research into the topic.

To assess the dynamics of authoritarianism, both of leaders and followers, Harms and his team built personality profiles of those groupings to pinpoint the individual characteristics trending toward autocratic tendencies. In the team’s survey of the research landscape, they see an opportunity to create models to further research authoritarian leadership.

Harms and his co-authors found authoritarian followers tend to be low on openness to new ideas, but also are more rule-abiding and less likely to take risks. The research team also found substantial differences in cultural norms across countries in terms of attitudes towards autocratic leaders.

“Research into the topic has largely stagnated in the past few decades. But this provided us with an opportunity for a fresh look into what makes an autocrat an autocrat and why people choose to elect them,” Harms said.

Researchers aiming to understand autocratic leadership were most active in the immediate aftermath of World War II, he said. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of democracy led to a belief that dictatorships would gradually fade away as countries around the globe came to embrace models of leadership prevalent in Western Democracies, he said.

“This is a topic worthy of study, and history shows that,” Harms said. “Instead of it no longer being relevant, we come to find out it is very relevant. We can look around the world and see many free people choosing populists and individuals with totalitarian impulses. The question is, clearly, why?”

But a crucial element in addressing this question is to ask why people want strong leaders without also assuming that such desires are inherently linked with hostile attitudes toward other races or religions, he said. Consequently, there is a need for new research in this area that better differentiates between attitudes concerning power structures and social attitudes, the paper concludes.

“Rather than resorting to oversimplified explanations or pinning nasty labels on those who embrace individuals who promise them strong leadership, we need to understand them,” Harms said. “Our research suggests that such impulses are a cry for help, and that many people are pushed towards this orientation in response to what they believe is a hopeless situation that they are incapable of solving on their own. It is all too human, and there is nothing aberrant about it. Vilifying these individuals is unlikely to effect change and may reinforce feelings of oppression and alienation.”

In fact, studies have shown that authoritarians, those who report desiring strong leaders, are less likely to commit crime and are hard workers, so understanding the characteristics of people with an autocratic preference is important at both the national and the organizational level, he said.

Co-authors on the paper include Dustin Wood, a research fellow, and Karen Landay, a second-year student, in Culverhouse; Major Paul B. Lester, of the U.S. Army; and Gretchen Vogelgesang Lester, of San Jose State University.


Adam Jones, UA communications, 205-348-4328,