Command, control and authority – a leadership style we love to hate

Command, control and authority – a leadership style we love to hate

I think we can agree that there are a number of leadership styles, but the one we love to hate is the ‘command and control’ style.

I once had a boss who was the epitome of command and control; a real “my way or the highway” kind of guy.  He was a stickler for punctuality and his need for control was so strong that he posted one of his managers at the elevators each morning armed with a clipboard and orders to write down the names of all those unsuspecting stragglers who deigned to arrive past the expected starting time.

One morning I peered over the shoulder of one of these hapless managers only to see that, having caught someone alighting from the elevator at 9.02am, he had written: “girl with red hair and green sweater”.

I asked him how he expected to create anything that the boss would find useful if he didn’t know the names of the people he was there to “catch”.  He said: “I have no *f*&*%! idea.  I’m just doing what I’m told.”

That is a classic consequence of creating and working in a command-and-control culture. It assumes that the person in charge is the holder of all wisdom, skill and experience; a person who knows exactly what they are doing at all times and the Mecca to which everyone bows. And the rest of us simply do as we are told.

Except we don’t.

In fact, while we are doing as we are told, we are also finding ways to quietly sabotage progress. We waste time grumbling. We call in sick when we are just too fed up to go in. We arrive on time but then do nothing for the first hour. We spend time dreaming up other ways to get around the stringent rules set out for us; and somewhere in all of that, productivity, dignity, a sense of accomplishment, and of purpose, are lost.

So command-and-control in a business or organisational environment is not a leadership style that serves us any more – at least not in large doses.

Having said that, there are situations that will call for an authoritive approach to leadership. For example:

  • In times of revolutionary change when the future feels doubtful, this take-charge style is needed, and often appreciated, to help people over the hump of uncertainty.
  • When under tight deadlines or in crises, there often just isn’t time for lengthy debate or consensus building.
  • When the leader has more knowledge about a certain issue and it just makes sense for him or her to make a decision for everyone.
  • When the organisation has drifted from its purpose or lost sight of its vision a strong authoritative presence is required to recalibrate organisational focus.

So, in short, while we love to hate command and control, we would be wise to allow that there are times when authoritive leadership is necessary. The trouble is, if not used well, it can easily morph into something that fails to serve the organisation or the greater good.  So, like the delicate balance of a perfect stew, the application of control and authority must be carefully measured and administered to render it both useful and palatable.


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