Command & Control – Why it’s OK, and Not OK

Mental Model Dōjō pre-session video


On Feb 21, 2024, hence the Lunar New Year décor in the background in case you’re wondering, at our Mental Model Dōjō session we’re discussing, or if you’re watching this video after the session, we’ve discussed the topic of how to make the shift from “instructing” leadership, which I describe as a polite form of command and control leadership, to a more coaching and facilitative style of leadership. The concept of “instructing leadership” looks like my own creation as it doesn’t come up on Google, so I thought I’d provide some context ahead of the session.

First, let’s take a step back and look at “command & control”. In modern leadership education, command and control is assumed as a vice, a necessary evil, a not a good thing. Hmm, is that really so?

Here’s my position, and I’ll do so by distinguishing control and command as separate things.

On control; as a state, as a result, it’s good to have things under control. So, control as a noun is a good thing.

But control as a verb, applied to people, is the trouble. I consider that there are three patterns of responses we get from people when they are exposed to controlling behavior by someone else: resentment, deference and indifference.

  • The first response is “I don’t like being told what to do”. When someone displays controlling behavior to us, we react, right? That’s because our agency, the desire and sense of control we like to have over our own life, is violated. When our agency is acutely deprived, we feel strong resentment against the controller.
  • The second response sounds counterintuitive but is actually “I like being told what to do”. Maybe it’s easier to imagine the situation of when we feel to the other, “Just tell me what to do”. Decision making is energy consuming, and when someone else makes the decision for us, our brains get to rest. And one more thing, if that someone else’s decision doesn’t work out, it’s not our fault! Controlling behavior that results in deference induces cognitive laziness, and avoidance of risk and responsibility. Hmm… “Be proactive”, we often tell our people, right? Doesn’t look like it’s happening here…
  • If that’s troubling enough, the third response of “I don’t care”, indifference, is major trouble. Against a heavily controlling boss, people find that there’s no point fighting back, and thereafter, apathy kicks in… And voilà, that’s how we create a zombi workforce!

Next, command. Is commanding a bad thing? In my thoughts, commanding itself, is not a bad thing. In fact, good commanding is essential to leading.

David Marquet, the leadership guru famous with his “Turn the ship around” book and video, was a submarine commander. A commander, talking about leadership. And he doesn’t teach the hard-fist variety of leadership. His approach is intent based leadership, and a lot of his thoughts are along the lines of Fair Process and agile.

There’s a difference between strong and hard leadership, I believe. Even among the emotionally intelligent, seemingly “softy approach” leaders, being seen as a strong leader is a positive attribute. The leader is the person we look up to see where they are pointing to as our North Star. We entrust them to lead us well in both good and bad times, and in return, we want them to lead us strong.

So it’s a matter of how we command.

When a leader commands with force, pressure, fear, threat, shame… That’s toxic, not good… Sadly it’s a regular scene in the office, isn’t it… Perhaps this can be a good discussion point in our dōjō session; why is it so hard to exercise self-restraint from these toxic behaviors?

Okay, now into the nuanced topic of the day, “instructing” leadership. Suppose you don’t show any aggressive behavior and simply in a neutral to nice way give clear and decisive command to your people. Maybe not even an order, just instructions on what to be done. Is that good commanding, good leadership?

Certainly not bad, but good is questionable. Remember, when you tell people what to do, you are typically met with the reactions of resentment, deference and indifference. That’s far from bringing out the best in people, which some people like to use as the definition of good leadership, isn’t it?

The nuanced challenge here is that, because telling people what to do nicely feels polite and kind, it’s hard to register that it’s not necessarily a good thing for people’s growth.

So, catch yourself when you’re doing “instructing” leadership; don’t deprive people of their opportunity to think and decide what and how to do things. Instead, share the bigger goal, respect their agency, and support them on achieving that goal with, for example, coaching and facilitation. Now that’s better leadership!

I hope this gives some context on the dōjō session topic of how to transcend from instructing leadership, to a more coaching and facilitative style of leadership. Come join us for the session, or hit me up for coaching later on! See you soon.

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