To D or Not to D, That is the Question

Directing versus influencing: a leadership debate as old as the leadership topic itself.

In today’s global workplace graced with telecommunication abundance and co-workers and customers all over the world, the pendulum of leadership advice is swinging toward favoring influencing skills: that coveted ability to collaborate, effectively negotiate the sea of changing stakeholders, reach common goals while everyone comes along willingly and remains engaged.

Or not? I have to say, sometimes the oozing of progress (or lack thereof) from influencing and collaboration can be as frustrating as the timeless, “my way or the highway” directive style of management that can get organizations from obsolete to leading edge overnight.

Could it be neither style is ideal, and really employing the right style under the right circumstances is the true skill for a leader to master?

Sometimes both styles are equally engaging, depending on the situation. Crises and unexpected circumstances leave people on edge. Having a directive, decisive style under those circumstances can be a welcome comfort. Directive people generally know where they need to go and how to get there. That confidence, vision and direction is also a comfort in the face of being weighed down with a multitude of options. However, directive people can also alienate others, and heaven forbid, be wrong.

Conversely, situations better suited for influencing might include new product development, innovation, process improvement or being new to an organization. Getting different perspectives, asking for feedback, bringing others vs. dragging them along helps people feel part of the solution. However, influencing styles are prone to, “this too shall pass” mentality and things not ever getting done.

Revolutionary action? Sorry, Directive (with a big D). That drastic of change won’t happen through collaboration. Specific goals, expectations, rewards and consequences work best here. Influence maybe has a part in the “how” of the revolutionary change.

If one is naturally an influencer, congratulations! You’ll be effective with that style in most circumstances. But, to avoid missing out on opportunities or frustrating others when situations call for a more directing style, the best tool to have in the toolbox is specificity: Be immediate, specific and follow up. The hallmark trait of directive people is that they’re, well, direct. in other words, not ambiguous. “I need this team to do X by X date.” I recommend against, “Or heads will roll” as a consequence, but you get the picture. I say that because I’ve actually heard it. Rather, a “carrot” or reward works better as long as it’s specific and immediate.

If you naturally have a directive style, congratulations…sort of. That style always get things done, but often people won’t like it. With engagement scores, retention and other “talent” metrics on the dashboard, and a new generation raised on teams, collaboration and “everyone wins,” you can’t always afford this style. And let’s be honest: the stakes are rarely that high, calling for quick, strategic decisive action regardless of what people might want to do or be ready for. Most of the time, you want to keep the team close behind, supporting you and ready for whatever comes.

The biggest tool for the influence toolbox is to stop. Write your solution down and walk away. Then, think of as many people you can, and starting talking to them uninfluenced (no pun intended) by your solution.

There is no question you are who you are. The equal truth is that today’s leaders need to be agile, capable of leading under a variety of changing circumstances. Be aware of your core strength and by all means hang on to it, but for a growth opportunity, try adding the other when circumstances call for it.

“A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.” —Rosalynn Carter

Examples for when directive style works best:
  • Revolutionary change
  • Times of crisis
  • Large issues with tight timeframes
  • Broad culture change
  • Already established as a leader
  • Issues regarding principles, ethics, values and safety
  • Start up businesses or new units
  • Turn-around situations
  • Dealing with poor performers
  • When a new vision or direction is needed
Examples for when influencing style works best:
  • Innovation, presenting new ideas
  • New product development
  • Technology, quality, other process improvements
  • Being new to an organization or unit
  • Strategic planning
  • Working with global teams
  • When leading people outside your core skill/domain/expertise
  • Building a new team
  1. I’d love to see this as an infographic – something a leader could use as a rule-of-thumb


    1. Great idea! I’ll add that.


  2. Agree! Situational leadership, or having an adaptable style depending on the person and situation, is definitely the key leadership skill today.


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