Command and Control vs. Trust and Inspire

This distinction between command and control and trust and inspire is key to narrowing the gap between potential and performance.

Training Magazine

Perhaps the best way to understand why and how Trust and Inspire leadership is more relevant and apt for our day is to see how it contrasts with the style of Command and Control, even its more sophisticated version of Enlightened Command and Control. Command and Control leaders operate under a paradigm of position and power. Trust and Inspire leaders operate under a paradigm of people and potential. It might be easier to see in parenting, where Command and Control parents are the ultimate micromanagers—afraid to let go and give up control, always looking over their child’s shoulder. Trust and Inspire parents are the top leaders—trusting and supporting their children as those children take chances. The same goes for organizations. For many Command and Control leaders, the biggest challenge is simply being able to let go.

Command and Control leaders may get compliance, but typically not much more. While compliance is necessary, it’s woefully insufficient.

Trust and Inspire, on the other hand, is about garnering heartfelt commitment that’s freely and enthusiastically given. Commitment is worlds apart from compliance, and it leads to a much higher level of engagement, innovation, and inspiration while creating far greater outcomes.

Command and Control is transactional—get the deal, finish the job, stop an undesirable behavior, and do it fast. That’s the notion of efficiency shining through. Trust and Inspire is transformational—it focuses on building relationships; developing capabilities; enabling, empowering, and growing people. And the irony is that not only is this the far more enduring approach, but it’s also actually the more efficient way to get things done as well. Remember this: with people, fast is slow, and slow is fast.

Over the years, I have been compiling a growing list of contrasts between these two overarching leadership styles. I’d like to highlight here a few of the comparisons that I believe will make the contrast clearer, and I’ll provide a summary list of new contracts at the end of each chapter as we learn more about a Trust and Inspire approach. You can find a comprehensive list in the Appendix and an ever-growing list online where you can add your own insights.

As you consider these contrasts, think about your own life. When have you experienced the concepts associated with Command and Control? And when have you experienced those on the side of Trust and Inspire? Perhaps more importantly, which side of the experience do you create for those you serve? For your coworkers? Your customers? Your students? Your kids?

(Manage Things, Lead People)

Before moving on, let’s dig a little deeper into that last contrast: When you think of a manager, what is the first thing that pops into your head?

Now, what pops into your head when I ask you to think of a leader? Is there a difference in the things or people that come to mind?

Perhaps that difference becomes all the more clear when you contrast what it feels like to be “managed” versus what it feels like to be “led.”

The distinctions between management and leadership began to be delineated decades ago starting with HarvardBusiness School professor Abraham Zaleznik, who posed the question “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” The delineations have continued through Peter Drucker, John Kotter, Warren Bennis, Herminia Ibarra, and many more of today’s influential thinkers. Yet, despite all our progress in overlapping and distinguishing between the two, the reality is that in today’s society, the terms are still typically used interchangeably.

I’m a massive believer in excellent management. I also believe we need equally great leadership. While both management and leadership are vitally needed, we live in a world that is overmanaged and underled. In fact, most teams, families, and organizations today are overmanaged and underled. Why? There is a disproportionately vital dimension in the contrast between the two, both in definition and in practical applica- tion. And that dimension lies in the difference between people and things. People in positions of leadership are frequently referred to as managers.

While many people are comfortable saying something like “Susan is my manager,” it would feel very different to say, “Susan is the person in charge of managing me.” No one would go into a job interview and say, “My name is Aaron, and I’ll do a decent job, but I really need to be managed.”

The definition of manage is “to handle with a degree of skill.” Its the etymology comes from the Latin manus, which means “hand,” and from the Italian maneggiare, which means “to handle horses or handle tools.” Nobody wants to be handled, much less admit to the idea that they really need to be handled by someone with a degree of skill—it’s dehumanizing and feels outright controlling. It perceives and treats an employee as an object or thing instead of as a whole person with a body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Many things need to be managed, even handled with skill. One example is technology, which is used effectively to help us solve problems and improve efficiencies. Schedules need to be addressed to be coordinated and aligned to help things get done. Finances need to be managed so revenue, taxes, expenses, payroll, and investments are tracked and in line. Inventories, processes, systems, structures, and supply chains all need to be managed. Those are all resources, tools, objects—things. Things serve a purpose and are generally some form of tool for accomplishing a task. But because things have no autonomy or choice, they need to be managed well in order to be effective or valuable.

We need leaders who are great at managing things.

Here’s the problem: those with a Command and Control mindset typically manage people the same way they manage things. The constant focus on efficiency often leads to managers treating people the same way they would treat a machine.

But when you try to manage people like you work things, you deny the very qualities people possess that bring real, unique value and enable them to solve problems and make decisions in creative, productive ways outside of how you might. In contrast to things, people can be inspired and show empathy. People have autonomy and choice. In fact, people’s greatest value comes when that autonomy is willingly and passionately given, engaged, and unleashed.

The same management thinking around control and containment that works so efficiently with things simply does not work effectively when applied to people. People don’t want to be managed or handled. This approach no longer works in our world today (if it ever did). People won’t stay at a job where they’re being controlled or treated like a replaceable tool or component, as if they were exchangeable or replaceable. You can manage resources. You can manage systems. You can manage processes and procedures. But you cannot effectively manage people.

Managing people doesn’t always go poorly, but it rarely goes well. People might perform well enough to get by, but how big is the gap between performance and potential? Few things demotivate or demoralize people more than being controlled and constantly being told what to do. Not only is that disempowering, but it can also kill the initiative.

Consider the parable of the flea. When fleas are initially placed in a jar, they jump right out of it. But if a lid is put on the jar, the fleas hit the lid when they try to jump out of the jar. Over time, the fleas will jump only high enough to avoid hitting the lid. When the lid is then taken off, the fleas are fully capable of jumping right out of the jar— but their previous conditioning stops them from doing so.

In many ways, Command and Control is the human equivalent of this type of conditioning. The limiting of potential is perhaps an unintended consequence of being managed like a thing.

Comparatively, the flexibility, trust, and autonomy inherent in the Trust and Inspire approach to encourage and inspire people. It conditions them to see and develop their capabilities and potential. They feel in- vested, they feel energized, they take initiative—and while they don’t want to be managed, they absolutely want to be led.

Operating with a Trust and Inspire mindset means you manage things, and lead people. You’re efficient with things, systems, and processes (a great manager), but you’re also effective with people (a great leader). This distinction is key to narrowing the gap between potential and performance. And it’s also key to tapping into purpose and meaning. As my late colleague, Blaine Lee always used to remind me, “Meaning is not in things; meaning is in people.”