Command and control leadership: The dark side
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Command and control leadership: The dark side

Think about the worst caricature of an evil boss imaginable. He’s overbearing to the point of tyranny. She flies off the handle over minor issues.

Obviously these managers don’t exist in real life. Or if they do, they don’t last long. But they represent the worst possible scenario for one type of management style: command and control.

(A reminder of what command-and-control management is: an authoritarian, top-down style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and executive orders to run a team, department or organization. It used to be the dominant style in American business — and with some managers, still is.)

When to use it
Now, let’s be clear. In the right situation, command and control is appropriate. Situations like:

  • Dealing with new hires. Brand-new employees probably need explicit instructions to make sure they understand what the job entails, and explicit orders so they know what to do first.
  • Coping with a crisis. In disasters — whether natural or business — the manager who can step up, take charge, and demand compliance will likely succeed where those who hesitate or stop to consult will likely fail.

So we see that great managers know how to deploy the command-and-control style convincingly when a situation calls for it.

When it goes wrong
The problem lies in managers who don’t recognize that command-and-control leadership only works situationally.

The style that works when the building is on fire doesn’t work in a group planning meeting. Employees don’t want to work for a boss who dictates the plan without any input. One-trick ponies who over-rely on this style make people feel stupid and reinforce learned helplessness. What’s worse, top performers quickly get fed up and leave.

Adding to the problem, command-and-control is seductive.

Managers who succeed with it once start to think, “I got promoted because of my great judgment. I’ve got all the answers.” Well, you don’t, especially as the management task gets more complex and you need people to take initiative. It’s tempting to stick with what works, and trust your own gut to the exclusion of everything else, but the consequences of doing so far outweigh the benefits of the command-and-control style.

To sum up: By all means, do the command-and-control thing when an out-of-the-ordinary situation calls for it. But don’t let it be your dominant leadership style. In most cases, you’ll do better if you consult, listen and engage your people with carrots rather than beat them with sticks.

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