When is it okay to just tell someone to do something? To some leaders, the idea of ordering people around is appealing on many levels. This sort of leadership is deeply ingrained in traditional models of command-and-control organizations. It fits nicely into our established history of leaders being “great men” with all the answers. 

But as Peter Drucker pointed out, that’s all history. “The leader of the past was a person who knew how to tell,” he said. “The leader of the future will be a person who knows how to ask.”

Here are five things to consider before you go into “bossy” mode.

1. “Telling” is only one part of leadership

Most leadership models include a variation of the “telling” style of leadership. It’s variously referred to as a “directive,” “prescriptive,” or even, to those who follow the emotional quotient (EQ) model, a “coercive” style. This style of leadership is highly appropriate to specific situations: a crisis, the early stages of a turnaround, or when direct feedback is needed for serious performance improvement. 

After the danger passes, the usefulness of telling decreases and leaders must pick up other styles. Those generally have more focus on shared purpose, inclusive communication, and team motivation.

“Telling” can be useful when needed – and highly regressive when inappropriate. Most organizations, people, and situations are not aligned around giving and following orders. 

2.     Are you leading a company or an institution?

Many modern companies do not want to be what the late sociologist Erving Goffman called “total institutions.” Those are entities, such as prisons, the military, and hospitals, that require a certain surrender of individual identity and choice by those within them. The military is not a democracy, prisons eliminate choice, and I don’t determine what happens to me during my surgery. Total institutions exist and function for specific reasons. Within them, some people are clearly, and necessarily, in charge, while others are not. For these entities, command-and-control is required.  

But most companies have values that might include flexibility, choice, collaboration, diversity, transparency, and more. Command-and-control won’t work here. Ask yourself, “What kind of organization am I leading?  How do I resist the urge to issue orders when this style flies in the face of my company’s culture and values?”

 3.     Complexity is not solved alone

Simple problems may be solved with a direct order. But most companies do not survive by engaging in simplicities.  My colleague, The Governance Network founder Jim Armstrong, helps lead change in international development and focuses on addressing highly complex problems. These are challenges with no clear solutions, so the best approach is to continually engage the problems with ideas, collaboration, and creativity. Jim emphasizes that leaders who face this kind of work can’t afford to position themselves outside the system, which is exactly what happens in the command-and-control model. Instead, they need to adopt an inclusive approach that expands participation, promotes learning, and strengthens the ability to face ambiguity.

Once downside of “telling” is that it narrows the focus to the person doing the telling. This may be appropriate for some transactional tasks, but it is not at all useful when managing complexity.  Innovation and creativity rarely happen in isolation.  Are you “telling” your people to innovate, or are you adapting your leadership style to different situations, so that people can learn to think and act more creatively?

4. Being stuck happens to everyone

This dynamic of “leading versus telling” is a common dilemma for both new and experienced leaders.  I’ve worked with young entrepreneurs who are reluctant to “tell” people anything because they fear upsetting a deconstructed startup culture. And I recently facilitated a meeting of executives in a public corporation where one participant seemed unable to stop lecturing the group about the best way to pursue a strategic objective.

These scenarios are two extremes of the same spectrum, and they each reveal individuals stuck in a particular style and unable to choose a different approach.  What is your default leadership style?  Which style(s) do you want to exercise more?  How do you prevent yourself from getting stuck? 

5. Choose a style over a habit

There are several choices other than “telling.” The challenge is to identify your default style, learn how to keep the auto-pilot from engaging, and practice other options.  One effective method is to ask more questions, especially when under stress.  Ask questions about decisions, understandings, accountability, standards, commitments, and shared objectives.  Ask for input, dissent, and off-the-wall ideas.  Ask with the intent of bringing others closer to you.

If your default style is to tell, create a slight pause with a genuine question, rather than jumping in with an immediate order or “answer.”  Even if your default style is “not telling,” this bit of reflection will give you time to determine whether or not it is appropriate to tell someone exactly what to do.

How else can you, as Drucker urges, learn to suspend the urge to tell, and increase your ability to ask?