Some managers lead by carefully cultivating loyal followers, winning people over with logic, respect, and a shared vision of the future. Others seem to rely on their formal authority, sometimes mixing in a dose of fear. In my experience, both styles work, and it has never been completely obvious which is more effective.
I have always been in the “persuade them” camp as opposed to what I’ll call the “command them” style of management. It’s because of my personality. I’ve never been able to get beyond the “do unto others…” principle. Since I always wanted someone to explain why we were doing something, I pretty much always tried to do the same for my team. I always looked for an understanding of the end goal, and perhaps a reason to be excited about it. As a result, I did my best to provide that to my subordinates.
In short, my personal style is largely dictated by looking at things through my own set of filters. I try to provide what I would have wanted in any given situation. By consistent application of this simple principle, I have been able to win over most of my subordinates, some of my peers, and even a few of my bosses.
I doubt the “command them” style operates the same way, but here direct experience with using the style fails me. Based on what I’ve seen over the years, however, I hardly think “command them” leaders are actually following the “do unto others…” principle. I doubt they prefer to have orders barked at them. I doubt they would want their own bosses to subtly (or not-so-subtly) threaten them. My best guess is this style comes out of a concept of “what leaders do” and they are emulating how they believe they are supposed to act.
After a time, it probably becomes second nature. Much as my own personal style has.
The thing is, after years of observing leaders, I don’t think one style is inherently more effective or better than the other. While they are at opposite ends of the spectrum, both seem to work.
An Environment of Fear
The organizational leadership principle in at one of my employers was formed around the “command them” principle. The most senior managers were notoriously demanding, hard-nosed types that were pretty much guaranteed to challenge you on anything you said or did.
I can remember experiencing a sense of nausea every time I contemplated going to corporate headquarters for a meeting, a review, or (the worst) a strategy session. When my team held their annual strategy planning meeting, I told subordinates that it “…wasn’t a question of whether the Chairman would, at some point during the day, be standing up, fists balled at his side, veins bulging out of his neck, as he shouted how stupid we were.” The only question of importance embedded in the event: Was the cause of the blow-up trivial or substantive?
It was a hell of a way to live, one that eventually drove me out of the company. Furthermore, there is no doubt in my mind that I was completely incapable of managing people in the same fashion as senior managers in this company did. Even if my life depended on it. It was simply too distant from my natural style.
But it definitely made me work really, really hard. It was with a sense of impending doom I would make sure every element of my strategies, plans, results and the like, were correct, thoroughly understood, and properly reflected in the numerical results of the business.
And while there was a pretty regular exodus of talent from this corporation, the firm had put in place a development process to bring on board new talent so they hardly missed a beat when someone departed.
Kinder and Gentler
My subsequent employer was at the other end of the spectrum. They were far inside the “persuade them” camp, and there was plenty of “rah-rah” talk about the future of the company and the enduring value of our products. And there was more understanding granted when it came to circumstances beyond management’s control.
Overall, it was a much more pleasant environment to work in, although this style seemed to inspire a lot more political games-playing. In general, I liked it better there – at least partially because I was able to employ my own personal style of management without feeling like it was at odds with the way the corporation was run, and partially because it wasn’t as anxiety-producing.
The problem was, I don’t think I worked as hard when there. Without fear driving me, I wasn’t as likely to push myself beyond my limits. I wasn’t as likely to accomplish something extraordinary.
And there was a small contingent of malcontents and cynics that were never going to buy into what the CEO was selling. In the other company, these people were either absent or so far underground as to be invisible.
Which way is better?
Over the long haul, both these companies were quite successful. Typing this today, I’m not sure I could say which one produced better financial results, despite the fact that they were vastly different.
But I know which one I preferred – the “persuade them” paradigm.
My advice to people on this subject – recognize your natural style, and seek an organization that mirrors it. You’ll feel more comfortable in your daily interactions in such an environment. If you’re a mis-matched, start looking for alternatives that will reduce the sense of fear and frustration you may be feeling.
And finally, recognize that success can come in a vast array of leadership environments. 26.3
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If you are intrigued by the ideas presented in my blog posts, check out some of my other writing. Novels: LEVERAGE, INCENTIVIZE, DELIVERABLES and HEIR APPARENT. Coming soon -- PURSUING OTHER OPPORTUNITIES
Non-Fiction: NAVIGATING CORPORATE POLITICS
Below is a montage of my published books. The four to the left are Novels, all in the "Corporate Thriller" genre. The book on the right is a non-fiction work which provides a framework that managers and executives can use to think about and utilize corporate politics.
The books (both eBook and paperback) can be purchased from my website. Just click on the image and follow the link to your preferred supplier and format.
My novels are based on extensions of my 27 years of personal experience as a senior manager in public corporations. Most were inspired by real events.