For decades, many businesses adhered to a rigid leadership style--one that was hierarchical, where managers gave orders, enforced inflexible policies, and didn't welcome input from employees. This type of command and control leadership took hold in the 1950s and '60s, started by people who returned from World War II and stepped into business leadership.
However, this style of leadership is a relic of a bygone era of business and is no longer even used to the same extent by the military. Employees no longer want to work at organizations where they simply must do as they're told, have no input on their role or the direction of the company, and must follow orders because they came from a superior.
Command and control may have worked in the past, but it's on its way out and companies that don't adjust quickly may find it very hard to recruit and retain talent. Not only does it damage employee morale, it also leads to inferior results. Here's why:
Command and control leadership was often used extensively in companies where employees expected to spend their entire careers and be rewarded with a pension. Before the internet, employees didn't have as many options to change jobs, and leaving a company in search of greener pastures was less common, as employees valued stability and tenure over flexibility.
This is not true anymore--workers are more comfortable exiting jobs, and more than half of employees are actively looking for a new job. Many workers are happy to join the gig economy and be their own boss. In response, innovative leaders have succeeded by changing their strategies to keep employees happy and willing to stay.
Today's workers don't need to tolerate command and control leadership. Employees who feel micromanaged or strictly scrutinized by their managers feel comfortable jumping ship and finding a new job where they have more autonomy, respect, and a sense of purpose and ownership.
Businesses must be nimble and innovative.
With the exception of very large industries such as aerospace and government contracting, it's very hard to maintain a competitive advantage these days without being able to constantly adapt.
Command and control doesn't just make employees unhappy--it also can hurt your team's decision making. The best leaders solicit multiple perspectives and know that differing opinions can improve a team's ideas over time. Leaders who suppress dissenting voices often keep valuable ideas from surfacing.
Most leadership experts agree that allowing dissent and productive conflict is vital to decision making. Legendary CEO and leadership expert Ray Dalio said, "The greatest tragedy of mankind comes from the inability of people to have thoughtful disagreement to find out what's true."
Command and control leadership's greatest failure comes from exactly what Dalio critiques. Leaders who insist their teams follow their decisions without question are shutting off constructive feedback that could reshape an idea, preempt a poor decision, or even change an entire company for the better.
Employees should be empowered to use judgment.
Command and control leadership is by design inflexible. While that ensures all members of a team are dedicated to the same goal, it also limits employee autonomy. If employees have to get permission for every decision they make, decision making will grind to a halt.
The fast pace of the modern business world requires employees to adjust course constantly to meet changing demands. The best businesses empower their employees to trust their own judgment, guided by their core values to make decisions independently based on the best information they have at the time.
Even the military, the foundation of modern command and control leadership, has recognized this--in an interview, American general Stanley McChrystal said he told his troops, "If and when we get on the ground the order we gave you is wrong, execute the order we should've given you."
McChrystal, a decorated general, certainly was not encouraging insubordination or disrespect of superiors. But he recognized that it's impossible for leaders to be correct in every case, and the best organizations empower employees to make judgment calls when it seems their instructions don't fit the situation.
Command and control leadership doesn't allow this flexibility--it requires adherence to rigid orders, and that can lead to massive mistakes.
We're way past the time when leaders succeed by commanding their teams to follow their instructions and never deviate. Employees want to be respected at work, have the autonomy to make their own decisions, and work in an environment of psychological safety, where they can be candid with their managers. The companies where leaders foster that type of environment are winning the talent war.
A more flexible style of leadership is better for everyone in the long run. Engaged and dedicated employees are critical to exponential growth, and command and control leadership will only push away top talent. It's time to adapt.