The case for command-and-control leadership

When times are hard, we want someone to be in charge, but they need to wield their power responsibly, says Stanford professor Deborah Gruenfeld.

by Deborah Gruenfeld
Last Updated: 06 May 2020
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Coronavirus

For many years now, management thinkers have sung the praises of a participative approach to leadership, with leaders who are informal, approachable and authentic, and who minimise rather than reinforce hierarchical differences.

By contrast, a top-down, command-and-control approach to wielding power seems old-fashioned, stuffy, and oppressive in many industries and many parts of the world. 

There are many benefits to participative leadership, and much to admire in leaders who play their power down. But in the past couple of months, as we’ve faced a pandemic, the world has flipped and so has what we need from our leaders. Now, more than ever, the world needs strong leaders who are not afraid to embrace their authority and to use their power for good. 

Power, by definition, is the capacity to control others despite their resistance. In good times, we tend to think of power in terms of the rights and privileges it affords to those who hold all the cards. 

It is admirable in good times for power-holders to show restraint and humility, to admit what they don’t know, and to empower others to make their own decisions. But in hard times, we are confronted with a different social reality: power is not just a right to tell others what to do. 

It is a responsibility to take the reins when the world becomes too chaotic and the cost of mistakes is too grave. 

When you think of it this way, it should come as no surprise that in good and bad times, an autocratic, top-down approach to using power is most common and most valued in health care organisations, and in the military.  

For many leaders outside of these fields, the idea of wielding power is foreign and even distasteful. Telling others what to do without their input can feel rude, presumptuous, or inauthentic. But in times like these, it is important to realise that showing up like the person in charge does not make you a bad person. It might be the most generous thing you can do.  

It goes against conventional wisdom, but research shows clearly that we often prefer individuals who act like they know their place to those who don’t, and we often prefer the presence of hierarchy to its absence, even when others outrank us, and even though they can seem unfair. 

Across many species, groups organise themselves hierarchically, it’s believed, because although a distribution of power is always better for some individuals than others, groups in which power is distributed unequally are often more functional and more productive than groups in which members have to expend all their energy fighting for control and access to resources.

Especially when we feel insecure, powerless, and in need of direction, we are drawn to strong, authoritative relationship partners. Studies show we prefer social interactions in which one person leads and the other follows, in which one exhibits dominance and the other exhibits deference, over relationships in which partners adopt the same style or try to share power equally.   

Groups need top-down direction, especially in times of crisis. We always need to know that someone is in charge so we can relax and focus on doing our own jobs. And the more insecure the workforce, the more we seek security from our leaders. These are exactly the circumstances in which more top-down social control, not less, is called for.  

People in positions of power are paid and respected more than those “beneath” them in the pecking order because they are supposed to have the answers, to know what to do and how to make it happen. In fact, during a crisis, as any manager knows, power-holders are often no more certain about any of this than anyone else. But it is the job of the person in power to make the tough decisions, quickly, without hesitation. 

It’s time for power-holders to rise to the occasion.  

Wielding power entails personal risk.  All leaders understand this. You might be wrong. You might not be successful. It might make you unpopular with some people. If things get worse instead of better, you will be the target of blame. But this is the deal you make when you step into a high-power position. That is the job. 

And if you take a look at which kinds of leaders are being celebrated at the moment, you can see the other side of the coin: when you take a personal risk by wielding power authoritatively, in service of others, you will earn others’ respect even if the outcomes aren’t welcome. And as a bonus, you will be able to respect yourself. 

Don’t get me wrong. Power is often used badly. Many wield power autocratically for personal gain - this is not what I’m talking about. When power is viewed as a resource for self aggrandisement, or a weapon to defend selfish interests without concern for the greater good, top-down decrees - like soliciting employee input with no intention of using it - are manipulative, corrupt and abusive. 

But this is not what power is for, and most great leaders know it. Power is a resource that is invested in individuals for the purpose of advancing group interests, not just personal ones. Executives who use their power to cut employee pay, but not their own, for example, and political leaders who flout public health recommendations, or change the rules to stay in power longer are wielding power autocratically, but not responsibly. 

To use power well, we need to strive to act responsibly; authenticity is not the right test. To become more authoritative, for the right reasons, you might have to step outside of your comfort zone.  

Deborah Gruenfeld is the Joseph McDonald Chaired Professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the author of Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful Than We Believe

Image credit: Herbert Dorfman/Corbis via Getty Images

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