As a CEO, I have met all too many commanding leaders. The commanding leadership style quickly becomes ineffective in more complex situations involving senior people and leads to horrible employee engagement in the long run. However, commanding leadership can work well for low complexity tasks in more junior teams. This article explains the commanding leadership style and its advantages and disadvantages. We explain when to use it, and how to use it properly. I also share some personal examples of commanding leadership before presenting a few famous examples of commanding leaders.
As usual, we start with the answer in summary form. Do keep on reading for a more comprehensive understanding and in-depth knowledge of commanding leadership.
What is commanding leadership?
In Commanding leadership, the leader makes all the decisions. Tight control and high clarity are critical in Commanding leadership, which can be effective in low-skilled teams or when requiring quick decisions. Commanding leadership ruins employee engagement, making it a style to use very rarely.
Now you have the overview, so keep on reading to get the whole picture. You can also watch our video below, before continuing.
What is Commanding Leadership?
Commanding leadership is also known as directive leadership, which is one of the four leadership styles outlined in Martin G. Evans’ path-goal theory. This theory states that a leadership style should be changed to fit the employees and work environment to achieve business goals. Directive/Commanding leadership should be used in certain situations with intent, rather than as a behavior used all the time, which would be Autocratic leadership, which can be considered a behavioral relative of commanding leadership. (You can find Autocratic Leadership in our leadership styles repository together with more than 20 other styles.)
The path-goal leadership theory was developed in 1970 by Martin G. Evans and was further enhanced in 1996 by Robert J House. Each leadership style outlined in this theory is based on the premise that an employee’s work goals should be clear, and the team’s leader should lay out a clear path for accomplishing these goals. The leadership style used to achieve these objectives differ from one situation to the next.
Daniel Goleman had the same situational approach when he created the Six leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence, where the directive leadership style is called commanding leadership. For the remainder of this text, we will use the term commanding rather than directive, or coercive, which is yet another word for this leadership style.
Commanding leadership is an ordering, autocratic approach where the leader gives orders, and those orders are followed. Besides orders being followed, commanding leaders also expect 100 percent compliance with rules. This can be good in low complexity work situations, with low skilled workers, or in times of crisis when the time to make decisions is minimal.
A commanding leader may accomplish clarity and accomplish goals by:
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- providing instructions and setting rules
- clarifying an employee’s roles and responsibilities
- removing any obstacles that prevent completion of tasks
- giving awards or punishment when appropriate
Military leaders often use the commanding leadership style, but it is far from the only style used in the military. However, it is also applicable in some corporate settings. If you are in the corporate world, I would say that you should keep your use of commanding leadership to a minimum and only when it is absolutely required. It is essential that you use all of Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles and alternate them depending on the situation and the circumstances. Goleman underlines that “It’s easy to understand why of all the leadership styles, the coercive (commanding, my remark) one is the least effective in most situations.”  After all, who likes being bossed around? Goleman’s research shows that commanding leadership has a negative impact on organizational climate, so you should be careful when using it. The Six leadership styles by Goleman are: the visionary leadership style, the affiliative leadership style, the coaching leadership style, the democratic leadership style, and the pacesetting leadership style. Read about the entire framework in this article, six leadership styles by Goleman, which also contains a thorough explainer video.
What Are the Elements of Commanding Leadership?
There are a few things a leader must do to establish commanding leadership.
1. Clear communication about job roles and functions
A commanding leader gets team members to clearly understand what is expected of them and how they can use their skills to accomplish organizational goals. Team members work with the commanding leader to establish clear goals and objectives, evaluation criteria, deadlines, and the subtasks necessary for ensuring that key performance indicators (KPIs) are met.
2. Implementation of firm rules and boundaries
There is a strong need for firm rules and boundaries in the commanding leadership style. It is essential for these leaders to have a sense of control over what subordinates do and how they complete their tasks. This also helps the commanding leader quickly identify when a team member is falling out of line. Finally, the rules and boundaries help bring the clarity that is one of the positive aspects of commanding leadership
3. Confidence in knowing how to do the work
A commanding leader should be highly experienced and skilled in the projects, tasks, and work assigned to the team. Furthermore, a commanding leader needs to know the competency and pros and cons of each team member. The experience, knowledge, and skills of the leader help him or her to:
- Understand everything required for successful completion first-hand
- Assign tasks to the right team members based on their skill levels and experience to reach the best productivity and task fulfillment
- Set realistic deadlines and hold each team member accountable for meeting these deadlines
- Adequately communicate expectations without seeming arrogant
The above is essentially establishing the framework and the clarity required for commanding leadership to function.
What are the Pros and Cons of Commanding Leadership?
Advantages of Commanding Leadership
The advantages of commanding leadership are:
1. Clarity on expectations and rules
The hallmark of commanding leadership is clarity of communication. All team members know what is expected from them and the rewards issued for successful task completion. They also know the consequences of not completing a task successfully within the given timeframe. This clarity can improve the job performance of teams that don’t work well due to ambiguous expectations.
2. Clear rules make it easier to maintain safety and adhere to regulations
There’s a reason for commanding leadership being a prominent leadership style used in the military. The precise rules and guidelines offered by this leadership style make it possible to create a robust framework for maintaining safety and meeting regulatory requirements. When deviation from regulations is disastrous, commanding leadership is a good idea.
3. Inexperienced, unorganized teams get structure.
A commanding leader’s experience can help inexperienced teams performing low complexity tasks get the structure they need. The leader outlines the specific tasks and duties that must be followed. This way, the leader’s experience is transferred to each team member, which leads to positive results.
4. Decisions can be made very fast
Since the commanding leader makes all the decisions, decision-making is very fast. No one from the team needs to be consulted. This is good in the right situation, but making decisions on your own can be harmful in many other situations. The decision can also be executed quickly since commanding leadership essentially means giving orders, and those orders are executed.
Disadvantages of Commanding Leadership
The disadvantages of Commanding Leadership are:
1. The leader must be more experienced than the team
The commanding leadership style relies heavily on the leader’s experience and ability to use that experience to direct the team effectively. Therefore, the leadership style fails if the leader doesn’t have sufficient experience and must rely on the expertise of subordinates to get things done.
2. Collaboration is non-existent
Commanding leadership doesn’t thrive in a collaborative environment. The leader gives directions, and the team is expected to follow accordingly. Rewards and consequences are used to encourage admirable behavior. Employee growth is pushed aside for the organization’s goals, and there is no idea-generating dialogue.
3. Team morale is reduced and employee engagement can drop
Commanding leadership doesn’t do well with highly skilled people in the corporate world, although it can be used in certain situations, which will be discussed later in this article. Employees in the corporate world tend to be against this leadership style because it leads to micromanagement and autocratic leadership behaviors. The higher the skill and the higher the involvement in the job is – the more negative the reaction to commanding leadership will be.
4. Creativity is stifled
Commanding leaders believe that an established set of rules should always be stringently followed. This creates a work environment where creativity is discouraged. Commanding leadership also means giving detailed instructions, or orders, which should be followed to the letter. Employees who don’t like the burden of taking the initiative and being creative prefer this type of environment. However, few of those employees exist in this modern era where millennials expect their bosses to value their creative input.
5. Very high dependency on the leader
Due to the command control structure, tight follow-up, and micromanagement the leader might be involved in, the leader may be overburdened with work. This can easily lead to the leader becoming a bottleneck when it comes to decision-making. Even worse, if the commanding leader is inaccessible, who will make the decisions? A decision-making vacuum can be created, which is a risk to any organization.
6. Commanding leaders can become autocratic and nasty
The absolute power of a commanding leader can become a problem. It can lead to nasty behavior and toxic organizational climates where an arrogant leader bullies team members. The commanding leader can become an autocrat using the autocratic leadership style as a behavior rather than switching between all the six leadership styles by Goleman. You can read about the Autocratic Leadership style and 25 others in our leadership styles portal.
How Can You Be an Effective Commanding Leader?
Commanding leadership works best with teams that are unskilled and inexperienced. It is even likely to backfire when employees are highly competent and skilled. These employees may resent their commanding leader and find the micromanagement akin to this leadership style intrusive. Therefore, you must first determine whether commanding leadership is right for your team before incorporating the strategy into how you lead.
The most important tip is to use commanding or directive leadership together with other styles. You can read more about that in our article on the Six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman, of which commanding is merely one.
Here are some tips for being an effective commanding leader.
1. Learn about the tasks and jobs involved in your team
Since commanding leadership builds on the competency and experience of the leader, he or she needs to be knowledgeable in the areas where the team members work. Without this deep knowledge, the leader will not be able to direct the work and provide detailed orders. Furthermore, if there is a crisis, you need to have enough knowledge to act fast and decisively.
2. Ensure that all team members clearly understand their roles.
It’s insufficient to say, “Look, here’s your job description. Read it so that you know what’s expected of you.” A commanding leader assumes the responsibility of ensuring that all team members clearly understand their roles and what is expected from them. Sure, reading a job description is great. However, it’s also important for you to sit down with each team member to clarify any misconceptions and ensure that the resulting rewards and consequences are clear in the person’s mind. Be very clear when someone has deviated from the framework and regulations.
3. Be decisive and do not hesitate to give direct orders
It is pertinent to be clear and precise: give detailed orders for execution, do not be indecisive, and go for unclear, undetailed, or delayed decisions. The team needs to feel like you’re in charge and have the capabilities necessary to steer them in the right direction. Therefore, you need to be confident and unwavering in your stance on what’s best for the team. Having a strong presence wouldn’t hurt either.
4. Avoid micromanaging
Although micromanagement often seems inevitable for the commanding leader, it can be avoided through trust. You have to trust that your team will get the work done after you’ve provided appropriate guidance. Watching them in the background detracts from your ability to complete higher priority tasks essential to your job.
Do keep in mind that commanding, just like autocratic leadership, can negatively affect employee motivation. Read more here if you are interested; the effects are similar when overusing the commanding leadership style: How Autocratic Leadership affects employee motivation and engagement.
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Commanding Leadership Examples from my career
Commanding leadership has a place in the business world, although mostly on the low complexity part of an organization’s operations or in times of urgency when decisive measures are necessary.
During my career as a senior leader and a CEO, I have always been rated low on Commanding leadership in surveys and evaluations. However, I would be happy if the ratings had been even lower since I disapprove of this style in general. (I much more prefer democratic leadership, transformational or servant leadership in comparison, you can read about them in our leadership styles portal.) Please note that I use commanding or directive leadership and the other styles as outlined in our article Six leadership styles based on Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. I would never solely rely on commanding leadership. It would ruin my career for sure.
The typical situations where I would use and have used commanding leadership are:
- Occasions when time has been minimal and decisions were needed quickly
- When team members have been non-performing and no improvement has been possible through coaching leadership or pacesetting leadership. Essentially, I have been forced to use commanding leadership for micromanagement purposes to get the job done
- When team members have preferred that I use the commanding leadership style (believe it or not, some people need it and like it)
I give you a real-life example of the second and third of these situations in this article: Commanding leadership examples in business.
Famous Examples of Commanding Leaders
Here are some famous examples of commanding leaders.
Vince Lombardi – Former NFL Executive – (Born 1913- Died 1970)
Autocratic leadership and commanding leadership are somewhat synonymous; the characteristics displayed by an autocratic leader are also displayed by a commanding leader. It is, therefore, not surprising that the autocratic leader Vince Lombardi has been included in our examples of commanding leaders. (You can read about autocratic leadership in our leadership styles portal.)
Lombardi began his career in sports as an NFL coach. He had high expectations for his team and expected them to follow his strict rules of discipline and performance. He also clearly outlined each team member’s role and ensured that these roles were understood before placing players or staff on the field. It is believed that his direction helped the teams he coached to win six NFL Championships and two Super Bowls.
John Chambers – Former Head of CISCO Systems – (1949 to present)
John Chambers is credited with transforming a small networking company, CISCO Systems, into a multi-million dollar empire. He didn’t accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, however, by sticking to a commanding leadership style throughout his tenure. He began that way but eventually realized that this approach was slowing down the decision-making process and resulting in missed opportunities.
Therefore, he changed the organizational design so that the company could function more efficiently. The company became a set of “cross-functional networks in which teams think through business problems and make decisions on their own in a fully-considered, yet rapid manner.”  This enabled the company to embark on dozens of business opportunities rather than limit itself to one or two.
Chambers’ story demonstrates the importance of changing a leadership style to suit a company’s unique needs. Perpetuating his commanding leadership approach wouldn’t have allowed him and his team to quickly transform CISCO Systems into a multi-million dollar company.
Now read the entire article on the six leadership styles by Daniel Goleman and learn about the other leadership styles that shall be used together with the Commanding/Directive leadership style. You can also join our newsletter and get a free copy of our E-book “7 Tips on How to Improve Your Emotional Intelligence” by clicking here: Emotional Intelligence E-book. It will help you to understand when you go too far with the commanding style. Check out our vast leadership styles portal for articles on transformational, spiritual, charismatic, bureaucratic, and 20+ other leadership styles for additional information and learning opportunities.
Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman & Richard Boyatzis