How many times have you seen great ideas being killed by a company’s board or management, only to realize later that it was a huge mistake to do so? A great example is Kodak which was disrupted by the onset of digital photography, even though the world’s first digital camera was invented at Kodak by one of their young engineers named Steven Sasson.

What does this mean for you if you are an innovative leader? What would have happened if Steve Jobs had listened to all the feedback he received about the non-viability of the iPod, and dropped the idea of launching it?

Here’s the problem with leadership: Most literature and advice on the subject says one must be collaborative and inclusive as a leader, whereas a majority of the biggest breakthroughs have been achieved in history by the exact opposite—by being autocratic. The very mention of the words ‘autocratic leader’ evokes strong negative reactions. Yet, half the innovations that changed the world would not have seen the light of day if the people that conceived them had placed more importance on social acceptance than on seeing their ideas through.

To get to the bottom of this issue, my colleagues and I designed a survey that asked 16,000 executives in 28 countries what they thought. One of the questions required respondents to indicate their level of agreement or disagreement with the following statement: In order to drive unprecedented success for the organization in today’s fast paced environment, a significant amount of top-down leadership is required. 75% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed. From across Europe, North and South America to Asia, Australia and the Middle East, we were surprised by the extent of agreement for the need of top-down leadership in each country. Even in the more liberal Western nations, levels of agreement were all above 50%.

But wait, how can such autocracy work in a time when ordinary people are more empowered than ever before (think Arab Spring in December 2010, or the India Against Corruption movement in 2010-11)? Even if you want to be autocratic, why would today’s social media connectivity enabled, and empowered, millions allow you to? To make things even more difficult, while for ordinary people power is increasing, leaders today are completely exposed. They cannot hide their deeds, words or motives anymore. In that sense, they are naked.

So, what’s the way forward? The answer lies in practising ‘positive autocracy’—a top-down leadership style driven by the relentless pursuit of a values-based purpose. To do this, leaders need to get good at the following four keys:

Earn the right to be autocratic. Always live the right values and pursue a worthy purpose. People must have no doubt in their minds about who you are and what you stand for. Only if you build a solid reputation of being a better future creator using the right values, will you earn the right to be autocratic. Think Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore.

Master the dance of the naked autocrat. Since every word and action of a leader is in full and open view these days, she needs to be autocratic about her values and purpose, and at the same time, be humble and respectful with people. It is a delicate dance of seemingly opposing ideas, but she must master it.

Provide freedom within a framework. Allow people to make values based decisions, and not box them into bureaucratic rules and policies. As long as people don’t deviate from the common purpose of the organization while living the values, they ought to be free to make whatever decisions they think are required.

Listen, learn, and reflect continuously. The work of leadership is intricate. On the one hand leaders need to be autocratic about their values, purpose, and vision. On the other hand, the speed with which change happens renders a lot of ideas and concepts obsolete in no time. Given the backdrop, leaders today must listen, learn, and reflect regularly to ensure that their values and purpose are still relevant. Again, this is a delicate balancing act that needs to be mastered.

By practising positive autocracy as described above, business and societal leaders can better navigate the challenging yet exiting times we find ourselves in today. While the phrase ‘positive autocracy’ sounds like an oxymoron, it is perhaps the only way forward.

21st Century Leadership is a column that rewrites the rules of leadership and management for the all-digital open source era . Rajeev Peshawaria is the author of Open Source Leadership and Too Many Bosses, Too Few Leaders. He is currently the CEO of The Iclif Leadership and Governance Centre, Malaysia.

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