All Articles Leadership Management The siren call of command-and-control leadership is strong but dangerous

The siren call of command-and-control leadership is strong but dangerous

It's easy to think command-and-control leadership is superior, but Larry Robertson argues, leaders should foster a collective agility to remain competitive.

5 min read



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Now more than ever, leaders are looking for help. With all the talk about the “Great Resignation” and “quiet quitting,” you might think the help need is purely a hiring one. Yet, the actual need is more fundamental: learning how to lead in a perpetually uncertain world. The pressure to figure this out in real time is great. It’s one reason why leaders often look to other leaders for ideas, even models to follow. It’s a sound idea, but too frequently results in looking to leaders given the most attention in the news — which in this moment in time, that includes Elon Musk. What leadership success Musk has had is largely implied (the companies he’s founded are privately held) or speculative. But one thing is clear: His chosen leadership style of command-and-control is not only dead, it’s dangerous.

larry robertson headshot

Were you to look at the headlines over the past six months, you might get the impression that Musk’s leadership style is the way to go. Because he gets disproportionate attention (not always for his leadership), his style receives a kind of implicit validation. His assumed smarts and implied wealth, coupled with the boldness of the ventures he’s founded, can appear to offer proof that his style works, or might work. When this happens, his command-and-control style gets an unfounded shot in the arm that implies it to be a viable approach in a work environment more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous than ever before. It’s not. That’s proven. And that larger body of evidence is one key reason why leaders should think twice about adopting it. Here are some more good reasons. 

The absolute leader

Command-and-control leadership makes what I call “the assumption of one,” as in: One absolute leader. One font of all things creative and innovative. One solver. One savior. It has its roots in outdated industrial age assembly line business models, and even older military models, ones that the U.S. military, not to mention organizations thriving in our new abnormal, realized long ago needed to be abandon in a fast-changing world. Yet, despite its consistent failures in the past twenty years, command-and-control remains attractive.

Why is that? To put it bluntly, it’s because any other leadership style implies vulnerability as a leader. It’s because any alternative inevitably reveals the truth that the most effective leadership is collective. Just as much, it’s appealing because other styles, even when proven effective, imply hard work, ongoing. London School of Business professor and author of Act Like a Leader, Think Like a Leader, Herminia Ibarra put it this way: “When push comes to shove, being in control,” which command-and-control implies, “is what sells. Collaborative is vegan; directive is meat and potatoes.” 

A study by McKinsey & Co. late last year backed Ibarra up. It affirmed that leaders were keenly aware that the business landscape was so permanently different and so continuingly volatile, that “fresh thinking and decisiveness around change was vital.” And yet, McKinsey found, leaders by and large leaned quickly and near completely to falling back on tried-and-true ways — ways that by their own admission were no longer fresh, or relevant.

Collaboration trumps command-and-control

It’s attractive and arguably easy to want to believe that Musk’s approach works. If we look only at his implied innovativeness, we can even feel justified in that belief. Moonshots (literally with Space X), high-tech and even self-driving cars (Tesla), even his leadership declaration of “I can do better’”(Twitter) all make us want to believe. Yet, leadership must be much more than innovative and declarative. Those snazzy storefronts bury the lede that command-and-control doesn’t fit the times or the prevailing situation leaders across sectors are faced with. Not only is the world more volatile, but the power equation within organizations has shifted.

For one, employees are infinitely more mobile. Moreover, businesses must now be more collectively agile, not once in a while, but perpetually — something beyond the ability of any individual leader. Equally, work itself has become so complex and distributed that the previous hunch that those down the line, not just up it, know what’s best for a business, has gone from a gut feeling to a necessity to empower those employees to lead. In other words, to choose to ignore that the entire landscape for leaders across sectors and the globe has irreversibly changed simply to remain in sole command, is to abdicate responsibility for perceived convenience. 

If there is one thing leadership experts agree on, it’s that leadership must fit the situation. In their heart of hearts, most leaders know this and also know that command-and-control leadership does not and cannot fit the situational abnormality that is our new reality. The trick is to not fall for the siren call of a good headline that implies an easier path. Leadership is hard work. When that’s accepted and shared, it’s also the most rewarding kind of work.


Larry Robertson, named a Fulbright scholar in 2021, is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and works, writes and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership and entrepreneurship. He’s the author “The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity,” “A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress” and the new “Rebel Leadership: How To Thrive in Uncertain Times.”

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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