Directive Leadership – What is it? Pros/Cons? Examples?


I have met many directive leaders on lower levels in organizations, but they are a bit less common further up in the hierarchy. The directive leadership style quickly becomes ineffective on more complex situations involving senior people and leads to horrible employee engagement in those situations. It can work well on low complexity tasks in more junior teams though. In this article, we present the directive leadership style as well as its advantages and disadvantages. We walk you through when it should be used and how to properly deploy it. Towards the end, I will share some personal examples of directive leadership before we present a few famous examples of directive leaders.

As usual, we start out with the answer in a very short summary. Do keep on reading for a more comprehensive understanding and in-depth knowledge on directive leadership.

What is directive leadership?

A Directive leader makes all the decisions and gives orders to his or her team. Tight control and follow-up combined with high clarity in rules, roles, and expectations are key elements of Directive leadership. This style can be efficient in low skilled teams and when decisions must be made very quickly. This style can lead to micromanagement, which is detrimental to employee engagement, especially in high skilled team in complex environments.

Now you have the overview, so keep on reading to get the whole picture.

What is Directive Leadership?

Directive leadership is one of the four leadership styles outlined in Martin G. Evans’ path-goal theory. According to this theory, a leadership style should be changed to fit the employees and work environment so that business goals can be achieved. Directive leadership should be used in certain situations rather than as a behavior that is used all the time. Autocratic leadership can be considered a behavioral relative of directive leadership.

The path-goal leadership theory was developed in 1970 by Martin G. Evans and was further enhanced in 1996 by Robert J House[1]. Each leadership style outlined in this theory is based on the premise that an employee’s work goals should be clear and the

The team’s leader should lay out a clear path for accomplishing these goals. The leadership style used to accomplish these objectives differ from one situation to the next.

Directive leadership, also known as coercive leadership, is an ordering, autocratic leadership style where the leader gives orders and those orders are followed[2]. Besides orders being followed, directive leaders also expect 100 percent compliance with rules and. This can be good in low complexity work situations, with low skilled workers or for instance in times of crisis when the time to make decisions is minimal.

A directive leader may accomplish clarity and accomplish goals by:

  • providing guidance and coaching,
  • clarifying an employee’s roles and responsibilities,
  • removing any obstacles that prevent completion of tasks and
  • giving awards when appropriate.

Military leaders often use the directive leadership style. However, it is also applicable in some corporate settings. This article provides details about the directive style of leadership and explains when it’s best used.

If you are in the corporate world, I would say that you should keep your use of directive leadership to a minimum and only when it is required. The directive style is also part of Daniel Goleman’s six leadership styles which is a set of styles that should be alternated depending on the situation and the circumstances. Goleman underlines that “It’s easy to understand why of all the leadership styles, the coercive one is the least effective in most situations.”[3] (My bolding, reference to the six leadership styles, which are the coercive/directive/commanding style, authoritative (visionary) style, affiliative style, pacesetting style, democratic style and coaching style mentioned in the same article.)

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What Are the Elements of Directive Leadership?

There are a few things a leader must do in order to establish directive leadership. Each of them described in detail below the image.

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1. Clear communication about job roles and functions

A directive 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 directive 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 directive leadership style. It is important for these leaders to have a sense of control over what subordinates do and how they complete their tasks. This also helps the directive 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 directive leadership

3. Confidence in knowing how to do the work

A directive leader should be highly experienced and skilled in the projects, tasks and work assigned to the team. Furthermore, a directive leader needs to know the competency and pros and cons of each of the team members. The experience, knowledge and skills of the leader helps him or her to:

  • Understand first-hand everything required for successful completion
  • Assign tasks to the right team members based on their skills levels and experience to reach the best productivity and fulfilment
  • 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 clarity required for directive leadership to function.

In order to ensure your personal productivity, you can seek inspiration in this article which shows all the apps and gadgets I use to keep my personal productivity high: Productivity tools for Managers and Leaders.

What are the Pros and Cons of Directive Leadership?

Advantages of Directive Leadership

1. Clarity on expectations and rules

The hallmark of directive leadership is clarity of communication.  All team members know what is expected from them and the rewards that will be 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 directive leadership being a prominent leadership style used in the military. The clear rules and guidelines offered by this leadership style make it possible to create a strong framework for maintaining safety and meeting regulatory requirements. When deviation from regulations is disastrous, directive leadership is a good idea.

 3. Inexperienced, unorganized teams get structure.

The experience a directive leader provides 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 directive 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 bad in many other situations. Decision can also be executed quickly since directive leadership essentially means giving orders, and those orders are executed.

Disadvantages of Directive Leadership

1. The leader must be more experienced than the team.

The directive leadership style relies heavily on the leader’s experience and ability to use that experience to effectively direct the team. Therefore, the leadership style fails if the leader doesn’t have sufficient experience and must rely on the experience of subordinates to get things done.

2. Collaboration is non-existent.

Directive 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 employee engagement can drop

Directive 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 directive leadership will be.

4. Creativity is stifled – employee engagement could drop

Directive leaders believe that an established set of rules should always be stringently followed. This creates a work environment where creativity is discouraged. Directive leadership also means giving detailed instructions, or orders, which should be followed to the letter. Employees who don’t like the burden of taking 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 bottle neck when it comes to decision making. Even worse, if the directive leader is inaccessible, who will make the decisions? A decision-making vacuum can be created which of course is a risk to any organization.

6. Directive leaders can become autocratic and nasty

The absolute power of a directive leader can become a problem. It can lead to nasty behavior and toxic organizational climates where team members are bullied by an arrogant leader. The directive leader can become an autocrat using the autocratic leadership style as a behavior rather than switching between direct leadership and the other styles according to the requirements of each situation. If you are interested, read our article on autocratic leadership.

How Can You Be an Effective Directive Leader?

Directive 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 directive leader and find the micromanagement akin to this leadership style intrusive. Therefore, you must first determine whether directive leadership is right for your team before incorporating the strategy into how you lead.

Here are some tips for being an effective directive leader.

1. Learn about the tasks and jobs involved in your team

Since directive leadership builds on the competency and experience of the leader, he or she need 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 directive 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 need 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 strong presence wouldn’t hurt either.

4. Avoid micromanaging.

Although micromanagement often seems inevitable for the directive 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.

Directive Leadership Examples from my career

Directive leadership really 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 need to be taken.

During my career as a senior leader, I have always been rated low on Directive leadership in surveys and evaluations, although 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 or servant leadership in comparison, both built on high levels of participation.)

The typical situations where I would use and have used directive leadership are:

  • occasions when time has been very limited, and decisions were needed quickly
  • when team members have been non-performing and no improvement has been possible through coaching leadership or pace-setting leadership. Essentially, I have been forced to use directive leadership for micromanagement purpose to get the job done
  • when team members have preferred that I use the directive leadership style (believe it or not, there are some people who needs it and likes it)

I will give you a real-life example on the second and third of these situations.

Directive leadership as a response to non-performance

A few years ago, I had a senior business leader in my time that showed signs on low performance. This person showed a lot of silo thinking and spent a lot of time blaming problems on other departments rather than solving them. When concrete improvement areas were discussed in the team, this person often resorted to cliché type responses and generalizations. This leader seemed to purposely stay vague and general whenever possible.

After a while, I started to realize this leader also lacked a proper plan since the long-term thoughts changed very often. One week, I was told additional resources were needed in logistics, only to hear that the only recruitments needed were in the sales department a few weeks later. This set of a few alarms ringing in my head basically stating that this leader might not really know what to do.

Months later, a relatively widespread customer issue started surfacing and it landed in this leader’s organization which had to improve the situation and solve the matter long term. As the leader presented a plan to the team, it contained obvious flaws. So, the leader was sent back with the task to improve the plan and make it more robust.

During the next month, I spent some time discussing the issue one on one with this person, trying to provide additional perspectives, advice, support etc. Sadly, the next meeting, new flaws and holes had emerged in the plan.

As this happened a third time, I had to become much more directive. I told the person straight out what needed to be done, when it should be done and to an extent also how it should be done. Still, performance was inadequate, although slightly higher thanks to several weekly follow-ups on progress.

In the end, the task had to be transferred to another person, who diligently resolved this complex problem relatively quickly.

I went through the cycle of starting out with an over arching goal in a democratic leadership style, went through coaching leadership and finally ended up with directive leadership. It didn’t work. As I reflected on this later, my conclusion was that the person should not have been given that many chances. I picked up on personality problems and competency problems, but I wanted to believe in this person a bit longer than I should have. However, that is easy to see afterwards and much more difficult to establish early before things develop.

There have been similar cases when I have felt forced to push towards directive leadership to get things back on track that have worked better. In those cases, a short push with directive leadership has gotten things going and I have fallen back to more long term leadership styles such as visionary leadership and democratic leadership again.

Directive leadership when preferred by a team member

Even longer back in my career, I had a direct report that had been promoted beyond his ability to be honest. His competency was inadequate for the task and his confidence on performing his duties was very low. I concluded that this was not good for the organization and definitely not good for the individual either.

I set out on a coaching leadership adventure and tried to increase the skill level as well as widen the horizon for this guy. We spent a lot of time discussing different angles, the importance of the different parts of his job description, how to empower him further and build his confidence. I was hoping to assist him in reaching success so he would get in a circle of positive reinforcement. Once he succeeded, his confidence would build and he would enjoy empowerment and hunger for more. At least that is what I had in mind. It turned out differently..

After a few months of this, performance went up and prioritization was handled in a better way. Still, this guy came to me for guidance on rather trivial issues. I kept asking him how he would handle it and after hearing him out, I stated that it sounded like a great idea and that he should continue as suggested. Still, no growing confidence. Every time he came for guidance I learnt more about him. Even though he got my support, he was often concerned, worried and nervous. I figured I would give something else a try. The next time he came, I told him what I wanted him to do and how to do it in a few brief sentences. He smiled, thanked me and ran off to execute. This happened repeatedly.

I finally concluded that this man did not want to make decisions if he could avoid it. I have rather high requirements on my team members being capable of decision making and I empower people a lot. This was totally in the other direction of my normal way of working. However, I noticed how performance was improved and perhaps even more importantly, I noticed how this man looked less stressed and seemed to enjoy his work more. So, what ever works.. Leading is about getting the job done and the people to perform. I needed to be the leader he needed me to be, not the leader I preferred to be. I continued being politely and empathetically directive with him for as long as we worked together and never regretted it.

Famous Examples of Directive Leaders

Vince Lombardi – Former NFL Executive – (Born 1913- Died 1970)

Autocratic leadership and directive leadership are somewhat synonymous; the characteristics displayed by an autocratic leader are also displayed by a directive leader. It is, therefore, not surprising that the autocratic leader Vince Lombardi has been included in our examples of directive leaders.

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 directive 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.”[4] 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 directive leadership approach wouldn’t have allowed him and his team to quickly transform CISCO Systems into a multi-million dollar company.     

References

https://www.cleverism.com/management-styles/

https://home.ubalt.edu/tmitch/642/E%20articles/house%201996%20path%20goal%20reformulaton.htm


[1] https://home.ubalt.edu/tmitch/642/E%20articles/house%201996%20path%20goal%20reformulaton.htm
[2] http://www.mchnutritionpartners.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/images/HBRLeadershipGetsResults1.pdf
[3] http://www.mchnutritionpartners.ucla.edu/sites/default/files/images/HBRLeadershipGetsResults1.pdf
[4] https://hbr.org/2008/10/cisco-ceo-john-chambers-on-tea

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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