The fallacy of endorsing command and control leadership

I came across this recent HBR blog post “Why Command-and-Control Leadership Is Here to Stay“.  A professor in organizational behavior is advocating command and control leadership backed by no real data.  Her entire assertion is resting on a billboard ad copy at an airport.  Is this how MBA factories are training managers?

Let us set aside that merits of that blog post for a second and inspect this – How often have you as a product manager had direct reports you could autocratically impose and get work done?  How did that go?  How long did they work for you?


The argument that an organization in crisis needs an autocratic leader is a perverse idea propagated by the weak, insecure and incompetent.  Would you suspend the fundamental rights of the citizens of a free nation just because of a ‘situation’?  The glorification of the autocratic leader as some messiah saving the firm from ruin and turning around its fortunes is not backed by a single example.  People cite Steve Jobs at Apple as an example.  That is a complex case.  First, your average executive is no Steve Jobs.  Second, even if your executive is some kind of Steve Jobs, it is highly unlikely he is going to be blessed with or is going to  surround himself with talent like Jobs did.  So let’s leave the obvious exception aside.


Turning to real examples backed by data, in his well researched work Jim Collins cites humility as the recurring Level 5 Leadership attribute in the 11 Good to Great firms that were able to turn around or transform their businesses.  If there is one thing we are learning in the information age about organizational behavior in free labor markets it is this – people organize themselves out of their own free will,  around a cause, a common purpose or objective, and produce goods and services that best serve their collective interests while maximizing on their individual capacities.


If Jim Collins work is about great leadership, modern software organizations are demonstrating new ideas in great organizational design and behavior.  Marc Andreessen famously observed  Why software is eating the world.  There’s a larger truth in that.  Software firms are also teaching organizational  design and behavior to firms entrenched in industrial economics based structure.  Firms like Github and 37 signals are setting the tone for how a collaborative flat meritocracy can be a self governing, profitable firm.  Last week I attended a Lean Software Austin Meet Up for the topic – Self-Determination in Software Development Organizations.  The discussion in the meeting was instructive.  The organizations being discussed were successful because they empowered their rank and file employees to make important decisions that “management” would be normally expected to make.  In fact it was part of their founding ethos to empower all employees.  I’ve been reading Dave Gray’s new book The Connected Company.  He talks about how the best performing firms are hierarchy busting, employee empowering firms and based on a firm design he calls “the podular organization“.


The good news is all of this is nothing new for product managers.  Product managers are already used to working in cross functional organizations with no authority but advocacy.  So skip autocracy and hero worship.  Rally around a purpose and chances are good that a great product will be built.  If you want to build a successful business or transform you business now, hire people with T shaped skills, hire collaborators and definitely hire for culture.  Insecure executives hiding under autocratic decision making are not the choice for leading your organizations.

– Prabhakar Gopalan (@PGopalan)

photo credit: iStockphoto.com user MHJ