What Is Autonomous Leadership? Pros, Cons and Tips

Leaders often say they want to empower autonomous teams and free the front line to innovate, but they also fear the chaos that might be unleashed if they do. What if people go off in too many directions? How will people make decisions? What about resources? Who gets what, and how do you mitigate all of the risks? It’s possible to create alignment and control — while also giving your employees more freedom — by putting guardrails in place. These guardrails can help leaders make a real change.

W.L. Gore has learned a lot about how to equip its people with a strategic mindset. Early on, the company depended on midlevel leaders to cascade strategic information to their people. But the information was often misinterpreted or didn’t get communicated at all. Now senior leaders go directly to employees and use videos, slides, webinars, and in-person forums to communicate strategy and financials. “We joke that the half-life of anything we communicate is the midpoint of the plane ride back home,” said Tom Moore, a senior leader at Gore. “You have to do it again and again, keep making it simpler and more crisp, make sure it’s clear for nonnative English speakers, and tell people how it connects to their jobs.”

Simple rules, a term coined by Donald Sull and Katherine Eisenhardt, are just-in-time structures that help leaders deal with blockages and behavior run amok. When a bottleneck arises, leaders at all levels identify the problem and come up with a simple rule to help address it, and then step out of the way.

Microsoft recently implemented a simple rule to handle bugs that build up during the software development process. Engineers used to wait to fix bugs until the end of the development cycle. But inevitably, after they fixed the first set of bugs, they would discover more — and more. Morale would plummet, and launch timelines dragged out. The simple rule of a “bug cap” was put in place, calculated by the following formula: # of engineers x 5. If the bug count ever rises above the cap, the development team stops working on new features and gets the bugs under the cap. Now the company can get products out the door faster, because the software is always in a healthy state.

A lot of ideas bubble up in organizations, but not every idea can or should move forward. There has to be a funneling process. First, product developers have to attract talent to their teams and partner with others to get resources. In attracting talent, some ideas get refined and improved, while others die a quiet death when no one signs up to follow. Second, seasoned leaders who have a broad view of the organization may point to similar projects or synergies with other teams that push for further integration and refinement. These “enabling leaders” ask questions to help the team discover problems and improve strategic alignment. Add the need to prove to others that the project is a good strategic bet and deserves organizational resources, and soon the number of projects is much smaller.

Southwest Airlines uses a choice committee with members from all levels in the organization for this purpose. They know that not every idea can or should get full company resources, so committee members decide which ones to pursue and implement. The unique boarding process at the airline started out as an idea that made its way through the choice committee.

In nimble companies, there aren’t a lot of quality control people watching to ensure that products meet standards, or PR people worrying about reputational issues. This is because risk mitigation is everyone’s job. Just like in manufacturing firms where anyone who sees a problem can pull a lever and stop the assembly line, anyone can order a “stop” for a project that is risky in terms of revenue or reputation. Everyone is responsible for not exposing the company to risk that could hurt it.

Harvard Business School’s Amy Edmondson, who focuses on psychological safety in the workplace, points to how the mining company Anglo American used a traditional South African village assembly, a lekgotla, to make it safe for miners to share their ideas for creating a work environment of care and respect. Over 30,000 workers were trained in the new safety protocols. Fatalities plummeted as a result.

The aviation industry has used distributed risk mitigation to transform its safety record, following decades of fatal plane crashes, 70% of which were attributed to human error. The key: creating a new culture in which risk is everyone’s responsibility and equipping all employees with training on assertiveness and the benefits of advocating the best course of action even though it might involve conflict with others.

Autonomous leadership is a method of management that emphasizes independence, adaptability and trust. Autonomous leaders empower their teams to succeed by providing them with the authority to make relevant decisions to their positions and giving them the tools and resources they need.

Autonomous Leadership

Benefits of autonomous leadership

Here are some benefits of using autonomous leadership techniques in the workplace:

Faster project turnaround

When everyone on a team has full control over how they complete their work, they can accomplish tasks quickly and efficiently. Autonomous leaders give their team members the power to decide on project details without waiting for a managers approval. The decrease in bureaucracy involved with autonomous leadership may allow the team to achieve a faster turnaround time for important projects and limit wasted time at work.

Better delegation

Autonomous leaders promote effective delegation by trusting the talents and skills of their team members. Because autonomous leaders strive to encourage independence, they carefully delegate tasks based on who has the resources and knowledge to complete them independently. This lets the supervisor focus on management tasks because theyre confident that the team can accomplish the assigned objectives on their own. They also trust that team members know when to reach out and ask for guidance.

Growth opportunities

When supervisors use autonomous leadership methods, they generate growth opportunities for their team. People who work with autonomous leaders get to structure their own work day and manage their own responsibilities, allowing them the freedom to create new opportunities for themselves in the workplace. Autonomous leaders encourage their team to explore new applications for their skills and find improvements to their current workflows.

Improved employee morale

Autonomous leadership encourages everyone to make the best choices for their own working style, which may cause team morale to improve. It focuses on empowering each individual to do their best, motivating and inspiring them by giving them opportunities to learn as they work. When people have independence at work, they can find ways to make their job more enjoyable while still accomplishing their duties. By trusting others to make good choices in the workplace, autonomous leaders can also instill a sense of purpose and motivation in their team.

Innovative ideas

By removing restrictions in the workplace, autonomous leaders promote innovation and creativity. Team members have the flexibility to experiment with new ideas, gather data and develop new best practices for their field. Autonomous leaders also encourage innovation by researching emerging industry trends and sharing them with their team as inspiration for their own methods.

Trust and respect

In a workplace that emphasizes autonomous leadership, colleagues tend to trust and respect one another. Because autonomous leaders support their team by expressing confidence in their abilities, they contribute to a culture of trust and dependability. They also respect when people have different ways of accomplishing goals and appreciate sharing knowledge within their team.

Extensive professional development

The primary way autonomous leaders guide their team is by mentoring them and offering professional development opportunities instead of simply giving orders and instructions. Organizations that use autonomous leadership may have a wide range of professional development opportunities, ranging from education stipends to informational seminars. Autonomous leaders learn about the unique needs and skills of each team member, then seek resources to help them grow in their careers.

What is autonomous leadership?

Autonomous leadership is a method of management that emphasizes independence, adaptability and trust. Autonomous leaders empower their teams to succeed by providing them with the authority to make relevant decisions to their positions and giving them the tools and resources they need. They encourage everyone on their team to invest in their own development, learn how to self-manage and solve problems on their own. Autonomous leaders provide basic instruction to their team but mainly work to develop each team members skills to they can be proactive and accountable for their work.

Challenges of autonomous leadership

While autonomous leadership involves several benefits, its important to recognize some of the potential challenges with this independent leadership style:

Decreased supervision

The freedom of autonomous leadership often involves fewer check-ins and updates during a project. This decreased supervision limits the opportunity for leaders to recognize problems and solve them early in a projects development. Some team members may have issues managing their own accountability without frequent supervision, while others thrive with the freedom.

Less support

Autonomous leaders provide support to their team when needed, but they may not know when their team needs help. Workplaces that use autonomous leadership rely on team members to contact their supervisor for support, and some people may not be comfortable asking for help. This has the potential to cause project delays in an autonomous workplace, especially if a leader only discovers an issue after it causes other problems with the project.


Because autonomous leaders have less direct involvement with their team members, miscommunication is a major challenge. Without appropriate communication, team members may misinterpret assignments or make incorrect assumptions. Consistent communication helps teams with autonomous leaders track their success while maintaining their independence.

Misplaced accountability

When leaders encourage their team to be fully independent at work, they may generate some confusion about responsibility and accountability. Outstanding leaders hold themselves accountable for the outcome of their teams work, even if they werent directly overseeing those tasks. Autonomous leaders may need to work hard at confirming the quality of their teams work and accepting responsibility for the outcome regardless of their teams independence.

Tips for successful autonomous leadership

If you want to enter a supervisory position and use an autonomous leadership style, try using these tips:


What are the 4 types of leadership?

Types of Leadership Styles
  • Autocratic.
  • Democratic.
  • Laissez-faire.
  • Transformational.

What type of leader allows for autonomy?

Autonomy supportive leaders are those who take steps to let people make their own choices at work when possible, and they will also generally help employees find enjoyment in their work as a way to motivate them, rather than trying to motivate them with contingency-based rewards or punishments.”

What does it mean to work autonomously?

Autonomy in the workplace means giving employees the freedom to work in a way that suits them. With autonomy at work, employees get to decide how and when their work should be done. Workplace autonomy will look different depending on your organization.

What are the 3 types of styles of leadership?

Here are three types of leadership you commonly see in the workplace:
  • Authoritarian leadership. …
  • Participative leadership. …
  • Delegative leadership. …
  • Reflect on your values. …
  • Think about your management style. …
  • Decide if you need to make changes. …
  • Transformational leadership vs. …
  • Expressive leadership vs.

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