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  • Sarah Banks

Directive leadership: an effective response to crisis?

There are a vast number of leadership theories which make a distinction between directive leadership and other more collaborative styles. One early model developed by Kurt Lewin, and still applicable today, distinguishes between autocratic or directive, participative and delegative approaches (Lewin, 1939). We can say that directive leadership is characterised by greater leadership control in contrast to more participatory methods, which focus on shared contribution and greater autonomy.

A growing body of robust findings reveals more collaborative approaches are generally preferred by team members. For example, De Cremer (2006) found that when leaders were more forceful in putting their ideas across in meetings, it had an adverse impact on participant emotion. Yet, during the corona-virus lock down I repeatedly heard comments from leaders I was working with about the need for greater directiveness as a means to support the well-being and effectiveness of the team. So, why might this be?

In very general terms, directive leaders are likely to be more explicit and instructive regarding task requirements and role expectations. This contrasts with relationship-oriented approaches in which leaders use inquiry-based methods to generate ideas from the team. There is evidence to show that whilst people generally prefer relationship-centred styles, the exception to this is when the task is poorly defined (Judge et al, 2004). In crisis moments, when available information is limited and significant ambiguities exist, top-down approaches increase clarity and may therefore be more helpful for the team.

At a deeper psychological level, change and particularly crisis moments are likely to invoke feelings of uncertainty and insecurity for the individual. Uncertainty-Identity Theory shows us that these feelings are aversive, and incline team members towards strong and directive leaders who create greater assurance of how the future will look. In support of this theory Rast et al (2013), who surveyed over 200 employees spread across a range of occupations in the UK, found when individuals were uncertain about their future, they better supported top-down leadership.

Yet, there are a number of essential principles that underpin the success of any leadership style, including more directive approaches. First and foremost, trust in leadership consistently ranks as the most essential building block in the relationship between leader and team member and is the single most reliable indicator of employee satisfaction (Hassan & Ahmed, 2011). Trust is multi-faceted but is known to include honesty, integrity, fairness and belief in leadership competence. Importantly, to build trust, team members must also perceive that the leader is operating with genuine regard for the team and not just as means to get things done efficiently. These are all characteristics compatible with a directive approach and are pre-requisites for the success of any move to greater directiveness during periods of change.

It is also crucial that leaders consider multiple situational variables in deciding how to act, including individual preferences and existing business culture. Tannenbaum and Schmidt (1958) propose seven stylistic options available to leaders, which differ in their varying level of directiveness (see figure 1). The style most appropriate in any given moment is dependent on a range of contextual factors including team capability, task complexity, time-pressures, relative decision importance, associated risks and benefits, as well as leader and team member preferences. There will be numerous scenarios when, despite crisis, change or uncertainty, directive approaches are simply not helpful.

Figure 1: Tannenbaum Schmidt Leadership Behaviour Continuum (Scouller, 2019)

And equally important is consideration of some of the other factors which have precipitated a shift within the workplace away from directive styles. One issue is that top-down decision-making creates less opportunity for new insights to be gathered from stake holders operating at other levels within the business. The experience of psychological safety may also be undermined in directive cultures, such that team members choose not to speak up for fear of harsh condemnation (Edmondson, 2019). The result is that free-flow of novel ideas is constrained, a considerable hindrance in a world in which new ways of thinking are increasingly valued.

When team members are meaningfully involved in decision making conversations, they also build knowledge and awareness, which enhances problem solving competence. This means individuals, particularly in more junior positions, build knowledge and skills to deal with unexpected issues and can be pro-active in tackling problems as they arise (Somech, 2005). This creates development opportunities and also frees up the time and head space for leaders to focus on other pressing issues across the business.

Furthermore, collaborative cultures and team member autonomy have strong links with high levels of engagement, motivation, performance and satisfaction. In one study, which took place within an investment bank, team members with greater autonomy reported higher levels of job satisfaction, which in turn created the right conditions for better success in their role (Baard, Deci & Ryan, 2004). Whilst a directive approach may be advantageous in particular moments of change or crisis, the danger when used to excess, for the wrong reasons or in the wrong context, is that it precipitates disengagement and even undermines team member well-being.

Research shows individual preferences for non-directive styles can sometimes be overturned because of a need for greater stability and clarity during crisis moments. However, it is clear leaders need to consider multiple variables in deciding their approach, and in particular reflect on the well-being, needs and preferences of team members. It is also important directiveness is not used for so long that it becomes an integral part of company culture. For a lucky few, ability to read the situation and nimbly flex their approach comes naturally, but for the vast majority of leaders this skill develops over time through regular learning and on-going reflection.


  • Baard, P. P., Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Intrinsic Need Satisfaction: A Motivational Basis of Performance and Well-Being in Two Work Settings. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34(10), 2045–2068.

  • Scouller, J. (2019). Leadership Behaviour Continuum - Tannenbaum and Schmidt [Online]. [Accessed 8 July 2020]. Available from:

  • Edmondson, A. (2018) The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.

  • Hassan, A. & Ahmed, F. (2011). Authentic Leadership, Trust and Work Engagement. International Journal of Human and Social Sciences 6(3).

  • Judge, T. A., Piccolo, R. F., & Ilies, R. (2004). The forgotten ones? The validity of consideration and initiating structure in leadership research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 89, 36–51.

  • Lewin, K.; Lippitt, R.; White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behavior in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271–301.

  • Rast, E., Hogg, M., & Giessner, S. (2013). Self-Uncertainty and Support for Autocratic Leadership. Journal of Self and Identity, 12(6).

  • Somech, A. (2005). Directive Versus Participative Leadership: Two Complementary Approaches to Managing School Effectiveness. Educational Administration Quarterly, 41(5).

  • Tannenbaum, R. & Schmidt, W. (1958) “How to choose a leadership pattern” Harvard Business Review 36(2).

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