When Commanding Leadership isn’t Helpful

Gallup’s recent State of the American Workplace Report shows concerning statistics for leaders.

  • 22% of employees strongly agree that the leadership of their organization has a clear direction for the organization
  • 15% of employees strongly agree that the leadership of their organization makes them enthusiastic about the future
  • 13% of employees strongly agree that the leadership of their organization communicates effectively with the rest of the organization

A group of employees at a struggling firm had gathered to work on a business development plan. The team was struggling with a sense of direction for the organization when the CEO walked past their space. Seizing upon the moment, one of the team members called out to the CEO and asked him what the vision of the company was for the next five-to-ten years.

The CEO was obviously frustrated by the question. He blurted out, “We’ll have twice as many consultants doing twice as much work for twice as many clients.” And he left abruptly.

The group, who were previously ready to help, now were demoralized. Some even made mention that their next action step would be brushing up their resumes. The company subsequently shrank by roughly 50%.

Leaders can often discount the important role they play in forming an inspired company culture. Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept of emotional intelligence, identified six leadership styles in his book Primal Leadership. The Wall Street Journal provides a good summary of these styles.

Visionary Leadership

This style is most appropriate when an organization needs a new direction. Its goal is to move people towards a new set of shared dreams. “Visionary leaders articulate where a group is going, but not how it will get there – setting people free to innovate, experiment, take calculated risks,” write Mr. Goleman and his coauthors.

But when many leaders think of the role they play, they envision a style more suited for the battlefield.

Commanding Leadership

This is classic model of “military” style leadership – probably the most often used, but the least often effective. Because it rarely involves praise and frequently employs criticism, it undercuts morale and job satisfaction. Mr. Goleman argues it is only effective in a crisis, when an urgent turnaround is needed. Even the modern military has come to recognize its limited usefulness.

Commanding leadership can be helpful in critical moments when everyone knows something HAS TO be done, but it would be utter chaos if a leader didn’t organize everyone’s actions to address the first priority.

But in the above example of the struggling consulting firm, visionary leadership would have been more helpful. The group was asking the CEO for a compelling vision to give them a sense of guidance. With an envisioned future, the people in the room could have created a plan to get there.

When people look to them for more than orders, commanding leaders may try to micromanage, or–like the CEO in our example–they may fail to lead at all. The major flaw of leaders who only command is they neglect to cultivate other leaders.

That’s how you end up with a roomful of people asking you where they’re headed.

Dustin Staiger is a business and marketing coach in Houston, TX. He addresses team and individual effectiveness, marketing, communications and creativity for smaller, entrepreneurial organizations as well as large enterprises.

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