Command & control leadership:
Many people still think of leadership as command & control. They assume leaders should know their jobs well enough to be able to answer the questions, make the decisions, and tell people what to do. They feel that leadership should be top down, hands on, confident, charismatic—and in your face.
This archaic view tends to see facilitation as an abrogation of leadership.
Command & control leadership may be appropriate when the leader already knows the answer or has already made a decision. But command & control leadership will not be nearly as effective when new (emergent) solutions are needed for complex challenges. When different kinds of perspectives and expertise are needed to create new solutions, facilitating collaborative effort will be more productive and innovative than commanding, telling, and selling.
Command & control leadership also stunts employee development. If a senior leader makes all the decisions—telling people what to do and how to do—no one is going to learn how to make tough decisions or do things on their own.
Facilitation as a leadership practice:
Facilitation can be a powerful and assertive act of leadership.
One can lead with a question as well as an answer or a command. Leading with a big question can be challenging, inspiring, assertive, bold, and charismatic—if you want it to be.
The more complex the work, the more valuable it becomes for us to shift from telling and selling to dialogue and discussion; from informing to collaborating; from problem solving to collaborative co-creation. The leader’s role in that kind of work is not to tell people what to do but to facilitate collaborative effort—create a space for collaboration and get the right people to the table.
There is a cultural bias toward command & control style leaders who are tough, charismatic, and usually male. We see this cliché become reality every day in advertisements, movies, and boardrooms. People who do not fit this mold are often excluded from power. This is partly due to a long history of discrimination, of course, but it is also a result of cultural biases that blind us to other (collaborative) styles of leadership. Most people simply do not know how to recognize, appreciate, and leverage other valuable leadership styles, possibilities, and approaches.
This is especially unfortunate both due to the inherent limits of command & control style leadership and also because many people do not fit that command & control mold and yet have enormous potential to contribute and lead.
Is it their fate to be excluded from power?
Of course not.
If you don’t self-identify with Genghis Khan, General Patton, or Dick Cheney—if that is not your natural style—then imitating those old school leaders means you will never be at your best, never be fully satisfied in your work, and will consistently under-leverage your unique strengths and values. Even worse, some of your greatest strengths may go unrecognized or be interpreted as weaknesses. How sad is that!?!
There is another possible future open to you. You can learn how to play to your strengths, be recognized for them, and lead every bit as powerfully as any old school, command & control style leader. Leadership based on collaborative practice, a belief in people, and a steadfast focus on possibility, can change the world.
Collaborative and facilitative leadership can be bold and assertive; ambitious and inspiring; tough and engaging—if you work it that way.
Command & control is not always bad, of course—there are times leaders must make decisions, tell people what to do, and sell people on their agenda. Nevertheless, by its very logic, command & control tends toward disempowerment and objectification. That is, command & control leadership tends to treat people like cogs in a machine (passive order takers) which radically under-estimates and under-leverages human potential for passion, commitment, and creativity. It is not surprising—or by coincidence—that so many organizational cultures are gloomy, boring, and lifeless.
Collaborative leadership practices, including the art of facilitation, are not just for HR professionals and humanitarians, but provide us with valuable skills and tools that all leaders need. Even old school command & control style leaders can improve their collaborative practices to expand their range and flexibility as leaders, engage their teams at a deeper level, speed up the cycle of employee learning, boost innovation, and enhance the capacity for renewal on their teams / in their organizations.
For those who are more naturally collaborative than manipulative, facilitative leadership can become a primary leadership approach, enabling you to play to your strengths, generate world class results, and be more authentic (present and true to yourself) as a leader. Collaborative and facilitative practices can help you better engage and inspire others for transformative action—especially in complex situations and where organizational learning and new solutions are needed.
Instead of imitating other leaders, tune into your natural style to “be the change you want to see in the world” (Gandhi).
Here are a few resources for big transformative action in a command & control world—even in a corporate setting. Note: the first few are classic business / MBA type resources (a tiny bit of philosophy but no poetry, if you know what I mean):
Blanchard, Zigarmi, and Zigarmi, Leadership and the One Minute Manager (William Morrow 1985). This is a practical little introduction to facilitative leadership at the level of supervision (though not by that name). It is all about adjusting levels of participation and coaching support to be a good supervisor. The same method is applied to managing teams in: High Performing Teams by Blanchard, Carew, & Parisi-Carew (William Morrow, 1990).
Jim Collins, Good to Great (Harper Business 2001), chapter 2, “Level 5 Leadership.” Solid and famous article that introduces important elements of “facilitative leadership.” It takes the Blanchard books up to the next level: from participatory supervision to facilitative leadership—encouraging people to move beyond ego and self-interest to serving the community; putting the company first rather than their own agenda, turf, or success.
Ronald Heifetz, Leadership without Easy Answers (Belknap Press, Harvard, 1994) and James O’Toole, Leading Change (Ballantine, 1996). These are high end, world class books that take participatory/facilitative leadership to the highest level—in that MBA type style. This is the best that world has to offer (that I have found so far).
Peter Block, Community (Berrett-Koehler, 2008). This book shows you how to actually do what Heifetz and O’Toole call for. This book is a key source for the Art of Hosting crowd, and provides concrete practices for hosting collaborative efforts. I like the fact that this book is a bit philosophical and political—definitely one step deeper than most business books. If command & control leadership is “conservative,” technical/mechanical, and individualizing, then Block’s book is progressive, human, and collaborative—bringing a deep humanity and sense of community back into our work. When you think about it, you have to ask how we could have ever lost that from our work in the first place.
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