Some writers on leadership like to imagine that the ancient leadership style of command and control is obsolete and disappearing fast. Does it feel like that to you? It is certainly less prevalent than it may have been in the 70s and 80s, but it remains pretty vigorous — at least judging by the volume of examples I hear of each month. And perhaps it should be too. Command and control still has a place in leadership and it always will — provided it is done in the right way.
Alive and kicking it is and you should be taking the latter word metaphorically rather than literally!
Below I will share with you three scenarios where I believe command and control is absolutely the right style to adopt. And to help me avoid becoming the friend and mentor to mini-despots the world over, please make sure and also read the criteria for appropriate use of command and control at the end of this article!
Scenario #1: The Ship Is Sinking
In crisis situations, panic is counter-productive. Someone needs to take the lead and be allowed to make the decisions and give the orders. Hopefully, the right person with the right qualifications, expertise, and intelligence will take the helm. Committees, innovations circles and consensus building are not conducive to saving the day in a crisis.
Scenario #2: The Shop Floor
When lots of people are involved in a high-volume, fast-moving operation, there is no time to stop and debate what to do next. Every individual needs to play their part, execute their role and deliver the goods. Of course, Kaizen circles have their place, but not in the middle of the production line, call centre or conference catering service.
Scenario #3: The Battle Zone
Combining the previous two scenarios and making it really serious, you arrive at the theatre of operations — the battle zone. Complex operations, thousands of interconnecting parts, extreme pressure, all conspire to make command and control probably the only option. Make the decisions, issue the orders, win the battle and save lives.
Do any of these scenarios sound familiar? Okay, the battle zone may be stretching it a little, yet at times many project teams can feel embattled, threatened and, yes, under fire. And this is why I believe that command and control is still so prevalent as a leadership style — it is needed, at least in the short term.
Sadly, much of the time it is only the leader who is feeling the need to be commanding. Shouldering the pressure on behalf of the team rather than sharing the crisis. They actually think they are doing their followers a favour by keeping them out of it, not troubling them and hoping they can figure out the right way forward.
This is where it all starts to go horribly wrong. They may win the war, but in the process, they alienate their followers and spoil their relationship with them. The declining goodwill makes it more likely that they will persist in their commanding style, rather than switching to the now, more appropriate, consultative style.
One of the skills of leadership is remaining alert to changing situations and having the ability to switch styles in an instant while keeping everyone on board. Here are a few ideas to help you to do this more effectively…
- Pressure-test its necessity, don’t just leave it to a gut reaction. There is a risk that you may be switching to command and control for the wrong reasons — for instance, simply because it is quicker and you haven’t the time to do it the right way. Make sure command and control is critical to success in the situation.
- Manage the expectations of your team members. Make it clear that your style is changing and, more importantly, why it is changing. They may not like it, but at least knowing why will help. Also signal the end of the crisis and then move back to a more consensual approach.
- Don’t make a habit of it. We all have our style preference, the one we find most comfortable, and the one which we can deliver with ease (and competence). If you use command and control too frequently, or readily, there may be some serious repercussions heading in your direction — not least of which is being accused of bullying.
- Manage upwards and sideways. When you are moving into command and control mode, it is easy to focus 100% of your attention on the crisis and your team members. This excludes the observers, many of whom are likely to be powerful. Managing their expectations, getting them bought in to your adapted approach may save you many problems later — as well as potentially getting more direct support from them as allies.
- Review after the event with your team. Once the crisis has passed, get your team together and talk about what happened, how it worked (or didn’t) and what you as a team might do differently next time.
- Make sure you are familiar with Vroom and Yetton’s Decision Making Model. This, in my opinion, has to be one of the most enduring and useful approaches to deciding which style of leadership to use. If you google hard enough, I am sure you will find online diagnostic based on this model.
Command and control is certainly alive, kicking, and necessary. Unfortunately, far too often it is being used in the wrong situations and without the hygiene factors listed above to make it a healthy and productive experience for all concerned.
Colin Gautrey is becoming the most sought-after expert in power and influence by ambitious and talented professionals who are serious about accelerating their careers and their results. But, Colin is certainly not for the faint-hearted.
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