Command-and-control leadership remains pervasive throughout business, government, and nonprofit organizations. Bnet.com defines command-and-control as:
…a style of leadership that uses standards, procedures, and output statistics to regulate the organization. A command and control approach to leadership is authoritative in nature and uses a top-down approach, which fits well in bureaucratic organizations in which privilege and power are vested in senior management. It is founded on, and emphasizes a distinction between, executives on the one hand and workers on the other. It stems from the principles of Frederick Winslow Taylor, and the applications of Henry Ford and Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. As more empowered, flat organizations have come to the fore, command and control leaders have been increasingly criticized for stifling creativity and limiting flexibility.
Given the large number of books, articles, blogs, and nings written about employee engagement and people-centered management, you’d think that the command-and-control style of leadership had gone the way of the ivory-billed woodpecker. But not so. According to John Seddon’s book, Freedom from Command & Control: Rethinking Management for Lean Service, command-and-control is still the dominant style of leadership. The author attributes the persistence of this style to leaders not knowing that there is a better way. He writes:
The better way has a completely different rationale to command and control, and that, perhaps, is the reason it remains unknown. It is difficult to understand a different logic. People interpret what they hear from within their current frame of reference, so that what they “hear” is not necessarily what is meant – it is the frame of reference from which they “understand” that gets in the way of understanding.
I don’t think it’s as much a matter of not knowing as it is a fear of losing control. Business leaders today are exposed to every management theory and best practice. However, switching to a people-centered approach means relinquishing control to others and trusting that employees will not abuse that responsibility. This is not easy to do for most leaders; it takes someone who is very confident and comfortable in his or her role to pull it off. And in times of stress, it is the human tendency to narrow our field of vision and revert to controlling behaviors that feel safe and less risky to us, whether they are or not.
Command-and-control is not always counter-productive. However, many managers in positions of authority will try to control schedules (e.g., time in the office), output (e.g., number of sales calls), and budget (e.g., line item for travel) before they have earned the trust of their employees. So at the same time that they are trying to control everything they can, they say they want employees to be creative and innovative and to respond rapidly to marketplace changes. The problem is that people won’t be creative, innovative, and responsive, and they won't stay in their jobs, if they feel disrespected and distrusted by their managers. Leaders can’t have it both ways.
John Baldoni makes this distinction when he talks about “leadership presence” in his new book, 12 Steps to Power Presence. He argues that it’s not enough to have a position of authority. A leader has to earn the trust and respect of followers. This is done through delegating decision-making and giving employees the opportunity to implement their own ideas. John writes:
Leadership presence is “earned authority.” Those two words are important. Earned means you have led by example. Authority means you have the power to lead others. While organizations confer management roles, it is up to the leader to prove himself or herself by getting others to follow his or her lead. A leader must earn the right to lead others. Title is conferred; leadership is earned… While leaders project power through presence, it is followers who authorize it with their approval.
As organizations of all types emerge from the recession and as many, new, entrepreneurial companies are born, managers should be very conscious of their leadership styles. Certain situations might require an authoritarian and directive response. However, most companies, to be successful, need leaders who, through a mostly people-centered management style, earn that designation by giving up control to their employees.