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Why is a Commanding Leadership style high-risk

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Please Note: this blog has been edited to remove two words that offend spam-software

For the last twenty years I’ve worked in health and safety.  Today I spoke with one of our senior leadership coaches about a recent international tragedy.Forton Group Leadership Development Health & Safety at work

The leader in this situation was known for his autocratic and authoritarian style.  Unapproachable and commanding.  So when a major incident occurred, no-one spoke up to prevent or avert the disaster.

My colleague is coaching a cohort of talented leaders in this company.  They are stepping in to replace these old-style leaders.  Because their organisation has recognised the issue and is making major changes.

I’m not giving details because the exact situation doesn’t matter.  I’ve heard this story too many times now.  Across all the sectors I’ve worked for.

The players are different, the outcomes, tragically, remain the same.

In complex situations, where there is a culture of commanding or controlling leadership styles; a lack of trust and failure to delegate, people are at high risk.  Unnecessarily.

A commanding and controlling style of leadership is a significant underlying cause in all these situations.


  • Because commanding leaders put themselves at the top of a hierarchy
  • Because team members don’t feel they can speak up
  • Because this leadership style is no longer fit for purpose

What’s the problem?

What was ok 200+ years ago, is no longer fit for purpose.

At the beginning of the industrial revolution processes were simple.  Workers were part of a clear, step by step process.  Individual thinking wasn’t needed.

This style fitted an under-educated workforce and hierarchical structures.  People who didn’t ask difficult questions.  And certainly didn’t answer back.

Times have changed.  This isn’t the 21st century world of work.  It hasn’t been for a long time.  But leadership styles haven’t kept up.

  • Commanding leadership encourages over-confidence in the leader
  • It limits intelligent thinking, discussion and decision-making in the team
  • It takes no account of other peoples’ skills, experience and talents
  • It assumes that one person, ‘the leader’, has all the answers.

In today’s complex, fast-moving pace of change, we need inclusive leadership, where everyone’s contribution matters.

How people respond to the commanding, controlling style of leadership

1. Team-Members Become Dependent

These situations create dependency on one decision-maker.  In complex situations, this is particularly high-risk.

It discourages assertiveness, where speaking up is particularly vital when things start to go wrong.

I’m not saying that things won’t go wrong – but they can be picked up and turned around when the whole team believes that they can, as individuals, have a say.

Most major incidents are typically not a single problem; often they are a ‘perfect storm’ of small problems, all colliding into one moment in time.

It’s even not about just one person speaking up – but of everyone feeling that it’s ok to report problems, or non-compliance with safety-critical steps

2.     Team Members Become Resentful

An over-used commanding style makes people feel resentful, because their experience and skills are not valued.

They feel less committed and dis-engage as a result.

People who are dis-engaged, or responding only to commands, are more likely to cut corners

3.     Team Members Become Non-compliant

The biggest risk is that disengaged people are already cutting corners.  They are de-railing your reputation; losing you customers and pulling you down the competitive ladder.

Does your organisation need dependent, resentful people who are more likely to cut corners and ruin your reputation?

It’s my belief that your organisation needs engaged people, doing their best, taking responsibility and working to their strengths as part of a committed team, where decisions take everyone’s needs into account.

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that decision-making becomes a group process.  Rather that the responsible person, the leader, takes decisions based on a wider perspective – that of the experts around him or her – who can contribute real insight and experience.  Those decisions will be better informed, for having been discussed and challenged.

And where those decisions are plainly wrong, team members feel able to speak up in an assertive way.

  • Today’s workers have an expectation of engagement – being asked their views; being able to input their expertise.
  • This isn’t the same as abdicating responsibility or accountability on the part of the leader.  Rather it’s a reflection of today’s complex workplaces.

We’re working in a new world, and we need leaders who work in new ways – expanding their leadership styles to include more effective, emotionally-intelligent methods that support success, create a better working environment.

What’s one simple step you can put into place, today?

We can only practice better delegation when we trust our team and know what their strengths are.  We need them to speak up in meetings and assert their strengths in high-pressure situations.

Building trust takes time.   One conversation at a time.

The good news is that you can start today.  Every conversation, especially those that result in getting to know your people better, are steps towards building trust.  Steps towards a more emotionally-intelligent leadership style.

I know how busy you are.  Conversations don’t just happen and they take time.  My challenge to you is to make time for these conversations.  Starting with your direct reports.

I recommend you set time aside in your diary to have regular in-person conversations with, at the very least, your direct reports.

This time investment will make your life easier

One of my clients told me about how he made his life easier by improving the quality time he spent with his direct reports, and by delegating more to them, over time.

  • He cut down on his travelling  – from 12-16 days each month to 3-4 days.
  • Overall, he spent less physical time with his direct reports.  But he committed to giving that time totally to them.  Not to dealing with other things in ‘their’ time.
  • He achieved a national goal for his organisation, integrating HR practices into a newly-merged organisation in half the planned time – with fewer blockages and conflicts than predicted.

This is real leadership

When people feel supported and valued for their contribution, they deliver, not just to plan, but they deliver their discretionary effort too – resulting in outcomes above and beyond expectations.  When people feel valued and trusted by leaders, they return the compliment.  This is true leadership – a win-win relationship between the team and the leader.


Author: Helen Caton Hughes

Leadership and Team Coach based on inspirational and practical tools. Works with leaders around the world; trains coaches to International Coach Federation standards. Passionate about finding best ways for leaders to inspire themselves and get the best from their teams

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