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The Directive Leadership Style Summarized

What is the directive style of leadership

Also known as the commanding leadership style, directive leadership is one of the most commonly used among new leaders or poor leaders. It is arguably the easiest style to make use of at work as it relies on the formal authority of the leader, in other words, their title. Directive leadership certainly has its uses for a leader with their team members as well. Like any of the styles of leadership, they must be properly deployed at the right moment and with the right team members.

a silhouetted man pointing set against a darkening sky


When to work with the directive leadership style

Directive leadership is best used when immediate compliance is needed. Often that is an emergency or crisis type situation, where timing is critical. There isn't time for leadership to have meetings or conference calls to talk through all the possible scenarios. Perhaps an organization is in danger of going through a downsizing or a merger. Maybe a natural disaster has occurred that has severely impacted operations and the leader must make rapid and immediate decisions.

Additionally, the directive leadership style might be used when the team they are leading is extremely green or new to an organization. In these circumstances, the team might not be overly experienced and needs constant direction from the leader. Suppose a leader was charged with leading a newly acquired business unit and needed to manage the situation closely to ensure they assimilate well and continue to be productive.

A very practical example of this style is boot camp in the military. The drill instructors have a very short amount of time to turn raw recruits into soldiers that can function within the larger military. They don't have time to discuss thoughts and feelings, they give commands and the recruits follow them.

In the world of sports this style is heavily used when a new coach takes over an underperforming team or is installing a new system with established teams. Leaders that can successfully utilize this style when it is appropriate and still maintain the morale of their people can achieve incredible results. Just as this leadership style can be corrosive in 'normal' environments, it can be essential and vital in an emergency situation where a take charge approach is needed.

Drawbacks to using the directive leadership style with your team

While the directive style of leadership has many uses, there are also plenty of pitfalls a leader must watch out for! For one, this style is easily the most corrosive to morale, team confidence and autonomy. No one likes to be micromanaged especially if you are part of a team that is competent, confident and experienced. If you try to exercise this leadership style with a tenured or high performing team the results will be disastrous. There are exceptions of course, as we discussed if you find yourself in emergency situations this style can be useful with any team.

While the directive leadership style is effective with inexperienced or new teams, even in those situations, using it too much is corrosive. A leader must balance the dichotomy between involvement and autonomy in order for the team to get to the point where you can employ the pacesetting leadership style instead of the directive leadership style. The pacesetting leadership style is sort of the "better version" of the directive style that is best used with high performing teams.

To summarize, like any of the leadership styles, use the directive approach when you need something done immediately. If you are in an emergency situation or find yourself leading a green and inexperienced team. Be careful to exercise caution and restraint and know when it is time to stop using this style and switch to a different one!

Six styles of leadership

Science journalist Daniel Goleman first came up with the concept of the styles of leadership in the early 2000's. Since then, they have become extremely popular when discussing the topic of situational leadership.

The six styles are as follows:

  • Visionary — mobilize people toward a vision. Works best when a clear direction or change is needed.

  • Coaching — develop people for the future. Works best when helping people and building long-term strength.

  • Affiliative — create emotional bonds and harmony. Works best to heal rifts in teams or motivate people in stressful times.

  • Democratic — build consensus through participation. Works best to create consensus or get input.

  • Pacesetting — expect excellence and self-direction. Works best to get quick results from a highly competent team.

  • Commanding (Directive) — demand immediate compliance. Works best in crisis or with problematic people.

If you want to go way more in depth on these leadership styles, check out Daniel Goleman's book!

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