The Decay of Command-and-Control Leadership

Ted and I are big fans of Vineet Nayar’s leadership philosophy that places employees over customers. Central to this belief is turning the hierarchical pyramid upside down. At the top of the inverted pyramid are employees. Central to this seemingly radical move is the disbelief that management holds the answers to business problems or has the most wisdom to identify solutions.

Command-and-control is crumbling. Emerging is connect-and-collaborate.

Connect-and-collaborate is a 21st century tenet of leadership that drives leaders in this new era to partner with employees. This isn’t some group-hug, touchy-feely belief. This foundational leadership tenet builds on our human nature to make a difference in the places we live. And let’s be honest we spend enough time at work to qualify it as a place we live.

Assuming you’re still reading a logical question is, “How do I do this? How do I connect-and-collaborate with employees?”

First Step: See the Decay

First thing is to accept that in organizations command-and-control leadership is decaying. As a way of leading, it has little room in our uber-connected world where any information is available at the click of a few keys. We can find like-minded people any where who share our same values, ways of thinking, beliefs.

This point isn’t to create fear. It’s to point out that ideas spread faster than ever before. Good ideas are freely shared and the mystique of greatness isn’t beholden to notables any longer. In fact the playing field of great accomplishments has been leveled. Why would any employee with great talent suffer in a suffocating environment commandeered by controlling leaders?

Connect-and-collaborate is an emergent leadership style rooted in our human nature to find like-minded people and who do good together. Leverage this where you work.

Second Step: Create Meaning

Creating meaning is both a management and employee drive to instigate business success collaboratively.

Here are some in-the-trenches changes you can make with employees to create meaningful work.

1. Build on strengths.

Develop your employees’ talents by learning about their strengths. Then let them lose on work where they can apply them. This may mean challenging assumptions and company history on how work is assigned.

2. Shared strategic conversations.

Joint strategic planning conversations with management and employees brings diverse views of the company together. Employees hear daily what works, what doesn’t work, and even have workarounds to broken processes or outdated beliefs. Leverage these perspectives to create stronger strategic plans. Reduce the “what the hell were they thinking” when you rollout the updated plan.

3. Reach deep.

I recently interviewed Peter Aceto, CEO of ING Direct Canada. Peter is a New Era Leader who actively spends time with employees deep within his company. He holds regular brown bags for employees only. His goal? To learn what’s on employees’ minds. And then apply those ideas to improve the company. He works with the employees to make this happen. He also avoids limiting his interactions to solely his executive management team.

Let’s go back to meaningful work. Meaningful work is an outcome of connecting and collaborating with employees to make a difference in the workplace and for customers. It taps into our basic human nature to be part of something that makes a difference in the world and for others.

In this new era, leaders understand that controlling what people do, think and create is an illusory belief. It has no room in business in the 21st century.

Photo courtesy of  Claudio Matsuoka

Change Leader | Speaker | Writer Co-founder and CEO of Switch and Shift. Passionately explores the space where business & humanity intersect. Promoter of workplace optimism. Believes work can be a source of joy. Top ranked leadership blogger by Huffington Post. The Optimistic Workplace (AMACOM) out 2015

  • Alan Kay

    Brilliant, as always. The command-and-control model has been in decay for some time. It’s part of a larger movement from single-stakeholder ownership towards multi-stakeholder ownership. The complicated bit is when one stakeholder group believes absolutely that it is in control, (e.g., shareholders), and that its rights come above all others. We’ll need to re-frame the role of financial institutions!

    It’s also part of the de-siloing of organizations. Now that we have discovered that silos are costly on many fronts we have started a move towards shared accountability. This means that the folks who live by command-and-control inside the silos, (e.g., unions), have to let go of their power and collaborate for the larger good.

    Still, humans also seem to live by the notion that an organization is full of people anxious to be told what to do (wish I could remember who said that). So, leaders have to give lots of thought to that, i.e., where do the make decisions and where do they delegate.

    Finally, another human trait, competitiveness, is a law of nature and it will not go away.

    So, the devolution of power is a difficult transition and some will resist.

    Incidentally, I think all of the above applies to a much bigger organization – our world.

  • http://www.brucesallan. Bruce Sallan

    I’ve been on my own for well over a decade so the actually work-place is a distant memory for me, happily. I was finding the PC rules to be stifling. For me, the sexual harassment seminars and all we NOW had to worry about were making work boring, as I had to watch EVERY word I said. I had jobs back in the day of secretaries…I had a bunch of ’em. After Anita Hill, I started hiring male secretaries. I just didn’t want the worry. Before Anita Hill, I had hired an ex-girlfriend as my secretary. It didn’t work out. We agreed and she left. Post Anita Hill, I would have been in a law-suit.

    Nonetheless, as I regularly read your excellent blogs, I so agree that caring for the employee before worry about the customer is wise. It really is a natural flow.

  • Ted Coine

    Alan, you’re absolutely correct on your last point, about our world as the biggest organization of all, and one that is changing seismically at present. What we see and discuss as change in business is just a reflection of how the social and international realm is changing.

    Exciting time to be alive, ain’t it?

  • Shawn Murphy

    Alan, a theme I pull from your comment is that despite the changes the vestiges from the “old way” will not go away. I envision, much like today, a variety of needs from employees and employers will exist. And often they are competing. The tension between the myriad needs helps generate many business essentials: innovation, creativity, camaraderie, etc. The key is to recognize when the tension between the competing needs isn’t at a breaking point. That, too, will always be difficult to acknowledge. But its those who can do so that raise the bar for others to aspire to.

  • Alan Kay

    Yes, delicious tension (as I sometimes call it with my clients), between competing needs is the issue. The “old way” will linger (some human behaviours are ageless), though lots of it will soon fade. The pace of change will vary from sector to sector. Sadly, the political sector will be among the last, but that’s another issue.

    Another delicious tension I often advocate to client leaders is enlightened despotic leadership. Why? As we move to devolved leadership, authority, accountability and collaboration, the ambiguity of business decision-making will constantly create uncertainty and indecisiveness among teams, especially large ones. It’s my “parent rule”, a) it’s not what you tell your kids, it’s what they see you doing, b) how you do it matters. Sometimes you have to break the tension and lead in order to create alignment.

    The resistance to this sort of thinking is people up and down the ladder think that it’s about a fluffy version of democracy. I think it’s the accountability version of democracy.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Indeed workplace sensitivity over topics like sexual harassment has increased over the years. I think in many ways its for the better. Unfortunately some take it too far. That, however, is nothing new.

  • Shawn Murphy

    Alan, I like your observation about how the shift in thinking is viewed as fluffy. In business “fluffy” thinking becomes a catch all phrase for newer ways of thinking. A sort of bone yard for words.

    I must admit that I’m not sure I follow what you mean by “enlightened despotic leadership?”

  • alankay1

    I use the line enlightened despotic leadership with leaders as a way to encourage them to be more conscious of their occasional need to be single-minded in their decision making…i.e., that it be for the common good. I run into leaders who are surprisingly deferential to their staff and others who are far too autocratic. The deferential leaders can help their people by being more decisive. The autocratic ones, by being more conscious of the impact of their decisiveness, usually unintended consequences. In both cases it has to be built on a) asking better questions and showing that they are listening, b) making sure their decision and desired outcomes are understood, c) the staff are clear on their authority and accountability to implement (including making mistakes). Finally, because we’ve moved from single to multi-stakeholder world, I suggest they don’t have to be enlightened despotic leaders very often by;

    1. Building on strengths.

    2. Sharing strategic conversations.

    3. Reaching deep.

    As I tell my clients, ‘You know the solution to the problem, it’s just not clear to you. I’m here to ask better questions so you’ll know what to do’.

  • Ptanji

    Hi Shaun,

    Thanks for the post. Great to get us leaders thinking beyond top-down, hierarchical decision making. I think we’re getting there. I’m ready to embrace a future unlike one we imagine now. Beyond collaboration to shared decision making among brilliant players (#2 above sets us on the path) by blurring the lines between management and employees. Sharing vision, purpose — not as in ‘I will decide the future of this organization’ but rather ‘we will decide the future of this organization’. Not brown bags so employers can listen to employees — still a rather linear approach to decision making – but rather viewing the organization as a living breathing whole organism — that is fluid — and– each piece dependent upon the other and as valuable of the other. Listening for what the future is unfolding (markets, competition, economy) — then reacting collectively in an instant…adjusting…acting……adjusting. That’s the future that I imagine. We’re getting there. Thanks for the post.

  • shawmu

    @Ptanji There’s a rhythm to what your put forward. Certainly organic. Senge and DeGeus have certainly written about this approach. I’m with you. I think, though, that we’re still transitioning from a decaying leadership style and seeing viable other options.

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