Apparently, to be a successful leader, you must be adaptable, trustworthy, enabling, innovative, resilient, inclusive, decisive…the list goes on. But is this always case? Are there scenarios where a more directive and forceful leadership style might be more effective? Gillian Hyde and Bianka Varga, of Psychological Consultancy Ltd., explore.



While watching the latest series of The Crown, instead of engaging in the lively debate regarding the depiction of the monarchy during this period of time, our morning Zoom calls at PCL skipped straight to an animated discussion about the leadership style of Margaret Thatcher, and whether the traits that Thatcher displayed could be beneficial to steering businesses through today’s turbulent climate. Throughout the pandemic and the subsequent rapid organisational change, we can see how traits such as adaptability would be advantageous to a leader. So how does Thatcher’s ‘directive’ leadership style compare to this. Is this forceful style out of fashion, stifling innovation, or does it have a place in today’s world?

Whatever we think of Thatcher, she had a vision. She stuck to her guns, had clear ambition and knew her end goal. She was confident in her decision-making and her refusal to give in or back-track on decisions was clear, stating herself; ‘this lady is not for turning’. Thatcher’s style, whilst admittedly controversial, helped to steer the country out of recession, arguably at the expense of morale, collaboration and team cohesion within her government, which at the end of her tenure, was considered her downfall.

As Tim Morris, Professor of Management Studies at Said Business School, explores in his article on directive leadership,  this ‘tell not sell’ or ‘command and control’ approach, has upsides for many scenarios within the workplace. These include crisis or challenge situations where the leader needs to make quick decisions, with ‘little discussion or debate about how instructions are to be carried out’, for early-stage start-ups to provide clear direction during rapid change, or for new untrained employees where the supervisor specifies exactly how to do a task to make the learning process more efficient.

Who else could be described as having a directive style of leadership? Steve Jobs? Reputed as having a clear vision for both the immediate and the longer term, according to reports, Jobs was also considered to be ruthless, impatient, have a low tolerance for failure and a particularly straight-talking leader – perfectionistic in his approach to each and every task he encountered. However, we all know the successes of Jobs’ leadership, and the benefits of his clear mission statement instilled company-wide. As we type this on our MacBook, it’s clear that innovation at Apple was certainly not stifled.

On the other side of the coin, who do we know that has a more inclusive, enabling style of leading? In contrast to Thatcher, Boris Johnson appears to be open to influence from his peers. Arianna Huffington is recognised by many as being a more enabling leader – with a focus on mentoring and ensuring all working practices support the collaborative culture she has carefully built, and there are many scenarios where inclusive leadership is beneficial. Where teams are experienced, when there is less time pressure to organisational change and in situations where innovation is the key to competitive advantage – allowing for the wisdom and expertise of the whole team to be utilised, which can have a very motivational impact on the workplace.  Is there a danger, that in 2021’s climate of enforced decision-making, an enabling leader with a collaborative culture may not be quick enough to react to change? Will their desire to please hold them back?  

To us, effective leadership ties in with Kaiser’s theory of versatility. Today’s leaders need to be able to switch style back and forth, and as quoted by Kaiser himself, ‘leadership is like basketball, the best players can go to the basket with either hand’. Truly effective leaders are capable of shifting their approach depending on what they are trying to accomplish, and the capacity to judge which style is best combined with a willingness to adopt the most appropriate style, is key to strong and authentic leadership. Perhaps an example of this would be the approach of Jacinda Ardern. Ardern has proven her clear and decisive style, with a strong vision against the eradication of the virus appearing to have worked, whilst at the same time maintaining her inclusive and authentic approach to leading. Forceful leaders should not be afraid of the ‘soft stuff’, while enabling leaders shouldn’t shy away from making a stand or a tough call. The right level of self-awareness and willingness to flex their style will define the successful leaders of the future.