This is a time when certain leadership styles shine. Modeling from Daniel Goleman’s leadership style framework, we are witnessing how a variety of leadership styles are winning the hearts and minds of talent remotely. And one style that has the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.  

I spoke to many HR and business leaders over the last few weeks who are driving their corporate strategies amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Whether in financial services, healthcare, or manufacturing, each leader spoke about the difficult decisions they are making regarding talent, remote work, client service, and operations. In all the conversations, leaders noted that the strength of their teams is being tested daily as they navigate this unprecedented time.  

For some leaders, this stress test is yielding confidence in their teams’ abilities. In the face of difficult decisions, leaders have a new-found appreciation for the strengths of their employees. Some leadership teams have placed trust in their remote workers, acted with empathy, and managed expectations on a weekly, if not daily basis. There’s no predictive leadership style that yields the best results. Whether democratic, affiliate, or coaching styles, as described by Daniel Goleman’s Primal Leadership model, a diversity in approach creates a synergistic quality to a team’s operations. 

For others, confidence is eroding quickly. Several leaders I communicated with spoke of CEOs who refuse to allow leaders to work from home despite their ability to do so in a non-mandated industry. Others shared that working remotely has added multiple meetings to the calendar simply for the CEO to monitor and control productivity. Others reported that their leadership team isn’t operating much like a team at all. One authoritarian voice is calling the shots, and everyone else is ‘yes-manning’ the decisions due to fear of losing their jobs. This command-and-control leadership style prioritizes immediate compliance and focuses on obedience at all levels. 

Though historically seen as effective during routine emergencies, the command-and-control leadership style is by far the most damaging to employee engagement and productivity in a COVID-19 world. According to McKinsey & Company’s article, Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges, leaders must shift to a ‘network of teams’ approach and abandon their command-and-control hierarchy. McKinsey notes that “In crisis situations, a leader’s instinct might be to consolidate decision-making authority and control information, providing it on a strictly need-to-know basis. Doing the opposite will encourage teams to follow suit.”

Having sat in the boardroom with commanding CEOs in the past, I know how this plays out in a typical business. There’s a ‘yes-man’ mentality that keeps the ship operating politely, and when a business emergency occurs, leadership defaults to the ‘commanding CEO’ to make the majority of the decisions. This leads to a general malaise and a lack of accountability at the senior leader level. Organizations tend to create their own dysfunctional coping mechanisms to manage around and below the commanding leader. It’s not good, but in normal circumstances, it’s not devastating.

The COVID-19 world is anything but normal. In a scenario like this, the commanding leadership style is disastrous. There is simply not enough time to centralize information in a way that provides the commanding leader the control they desire. In an unpredictable world filled with misinformation and an ever-changing landscape, a commanding leader grasps on to more control at a time when less is optimal. 

Control is an illusion in the world we are living in today. For employees who see that, watching a commanding leader struggle to centralize decision making reveals a lack of trust at a time when employees need it most.

What concerns me most about the stories I’ve heard from those being led by commanding leaders is that they aren’t just voicing frustration. They are expressing true concern over their physical and psychological safety. They sense the fear behind their leaders’ actions and, and they are fearful of their own stability. In a downturn or emergency, employees may be willing to tolerate commanding leadership to keep their jobs. But the moment the situation improves, they’re out. 

Command-and-control leaders are eroding trust that can never be rebuilt. Like a bad relationship, when a person’s safety is threatened over a sustained time period, the only thought on that person’s mind is an exit strategy. The same is true for employees who endure an overly commanding leader. This is damaging not only to the employee, but also for the engagement of an entire workforce – leading to a wealth of disengaged and disheartened workers. 

Command-and-control leaders are creating the world they fear most: one of disloyalty, disengagement, and lack of productivity. The antidote is intentionally letting go of control and empowering those around you to lead. Though counter-intuitive to commanding leaders, they need to loosen the reins and spread the decision-making authority while providing empathy and encouraging accountability among the ranks. 

Leaders can also leverage workforce data and analytics to adjust their management strategies. Employers track a range of employee data in various systems, and command-and-control leaders often lack tools and technology to provide a clear view of how employee activities impact the bottom line. Fortunately, there are many workforce analytics tools available today that can solve for this information gap (HCMI is one of many). These tools can help leaders feel at ease while adjusting to the new market landscape and make informed decisions to optimize their workforce. We are entering a ‘new normal’ globally. For employers, it means that employees will come to expect remote flexibility and a healthy leadership team able to withstand future crises. There is no going back to the old way in the years following the COVID-19 recovery. In a post-COVID world, command-and-control leaders will be left in the dust by resilient organizations able to embrace team-oriented strategies and multiple leadership styles. It’s time for commanding leaders to re-skill for the benefit of their employees, their clients, and their companies. 

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