Taking a Look at Command, Control and Authority

I once had a boss who was  a real “my way or the highway” kind of guy. He was a stickler for punctuality and his need for control was so strong that he posted one of his managers at the elevators each morning armed with a clipboard and orders to write down the names of all those unsuspecting stragglers who deigned to arrive past the expected starting time.

One morning I peered over the shoulder of one of these hapless managers only to see that, having caught someone alighting from the elevator at 9:02 a.m., he had written, “girl with red hair and green sweater”

I asked him how he expected to create anything that the boss would find useful if he didn’t know the names of the people he was there to “catch”. He said,

“I have no *f*&*%! idea. I’m just doing what I’m told”

That is a classic consequence of creating and working in a Command and Control culture. It assumes that the person in charge is the holder of all wisdom, skill and experience; a person who knows exactly what they are doing at all times and the Mecca to which everyone bows. And the rest of us simply do as we are told.

Except we don’t.

In fact, while we are doing as we are told, we are also finding ways to quietly sabotage progress. We waste time grumbling. We call in sick when we are just too fed up to go in. We arrive on time but then do nothing for the first hour. We spend time dreaming up other ways to get around the stringent rules set out for us; and somewhere in all of that, productivity, dignity, a sense of accomplishment, and of purpose, are lost.

So no, Command and Control in a business or organizational environment is not a leadership style that serves us any more… at least not in large doses.

Having said that there are situations that will call for an authoritative approach to leadership. For example:

  • In times of revolutionary change when the future feels doubtful, this take-charge style is needed, and often appreciated, to help people over the hump of uncertainty.
  • When under tight deadlines or in crises, there often just isn’t time for lengthy debate or consensus building.
  • When the leader has more knowledge around a certain issue and it just makes sense for him or her to make a decision for everyone.
  • When the organization has drifted from its purpose or lost sight of its vision a strong authoritative presence is required to recalibrate organizational focus.

So, in short, while we love to hate Command and Control, we would be wise to allow that there are times when authoritative leadership is necessary. The trouble is, if not used well, it can easily morph into something that fails to serve the organization or the greater good. So, like the delicate balance of a perfect stew, the application of control and authority must be carefully measured and administered to render it both useful and palatable.

That’s what I think anyway.  What do you think?

Note: This is a refreshed version of a post originally published in 2011




Filed under Leadership, Leadership Development, Leadership Style, Organizational Effectiveness

3 responses to “Taking a Look at Command, Control and Authority

  1. Hi Gwyn,

    As always you get me thinking…There are times when taking charge is what is wanted and needed, but I am not sure that’s the same thing as “command and control”. Seems to me taking charge can be a situational choice from a context of I am taking the lead because it’s needed and people willingly choose to follow your lead. Command and control on the other hand comes from a context of I am the boss and it’s my job to tell you what to do so you must follow. People follow compliantly thinking they don’t really have a choice.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Susan ~ I agree. Taking charge as a situational choice is quite different from the ‘my way or the highway’ power move so typical of the command and control style of leadership. I think too that, unlike you, there are some who fail to make that distinction. As a result, the command and control leadership style is often “legitimized” under the guise of a more acceptable model. As well, there are some who, when on the receiving end of authority, automatically view it with a jaundiced eye without seeking to understand the prevailing situation. I think we need to put more distance between the antiquity of the command and control leadership style and being authoritative when the situation and the people involved in it need greater support and direction.
      Thanks for helping me think about this more. You have a way of doing that 🙂

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