The Need For High Direction Leadership

images-1I was asked recently, “When do you utilize a high direction style of leadership?” I think it is a fair question. In this age of empowerment and consultive leadership, is there ever a time when a leader must take a more hands on approach to lead? I think the answer is clearly “Yes.” I can think of two instances when a less consultive, high direction style is necessary. When a team is faced with a crisis and when a team is very young and inexperienced.

Several years ago I was a regional director for our campus ministry when a tragedy struck one of our campus settings. Several students were killed in the tragedy and our local staff were overwhelmed by the situation. The local ministry director called me, seeking advice on how to lead in the chaos. Together, we formulated a response plan that would utilize all of our local staff and the leadership students that were involved with us on that campus. We knew the greatest need would be for our ministry to have a very personal presence–to be available to any student who simply needed someone to talk to or for prayer. But rather than have a staff meeting and spend a few hours consulting on what should be done, we took a much more direct approach. The staff and student leaders were gathered at a popular meeting spot on campus. People were paired up and sent to different dorms on campus and to the student union. They were briefed on what to expect and what to say. Four hour later, a core group would reconvene for further instructions. In a crisis the need is for simple action. There usually isn’t time for consultation. Besides, most people on a team are in shock themselves during a crisis situation–and they are looking for someone to lead them. Keep the direction short, precise and nimble. The setting could change at any time. Stay in high communication and ready to change the plan as needed. Once the crisis is averted you can slow down, assess, and take a more measured approach to what needs to happen over time.

Another season for high direction is when a team is new and very young. I have been in settings internationally where I was leading a team of people who were all under the age of 22. It was the first time in a cross cultural setting and they were like deer in the headlights. They did not have any answers, but they were loaded with questions. I had served overseas before. I knew a few things–at least how to get started. This was not a time for consultation either. It would largely have been an exercise in pooling the ignorance. It was time for some precise, simple direction. The first several days needed to be scripted. There was a need for strong community, clear communication, and regular emotional check ups. As the weeks progressed there was greater opportunity for analysis and consultation. The team had a greater understanding of the setting and the mission. Ideas were percolating. There was insight to be tapped. But that came from some high direction experience that allowed them to taste things and gain their confidence.

The goal is never to set up a dictatorship. The goal is to accomplish the mission while developing the leaders around you. You must always assess the leadership setting and the team around you. What does the situation call for and what does your team need? If you are facing a crisis or the team is very young and lacking experience, then you must lead with greater direction and a hands on approach. But to remain in this style beyond the crisis or to the demise of good leadership development is unwise.

What are your thoughts? Are there other seasons of leadership in which a high direction style is necessary?



2 replies
  1. jim layman
    jim layman says:

    Hi Gary, I enjoyed reading this post and your analysis. I will add a cautionary note about directive leadership in a crisis situation (or the aftermath of a crisis). I have witnessed directive spiritual leadership that was decidedly “over the top” in the rush or tension to address the opportunity at hand. Perhaps there is a tendency or temptation for leaders to overdirect or take control as they grab for a quick ( and perhaps splashy) response. I like that the example you cited was feasible, prompt, and also well within the capability of the team to enact. Thus, it was successful. Thanks.

    • Gary Runn
      Gary Runn says:

      Thanks Jim for your good comments. There is certainly that tendency to over do it. We have to be measured in our approach to crises and readily adjust as things begin to settle. You are right though-I have seen some leaders make a name for themselves in a crisis situation and then never relinquish the “throne.” Thanks for this helpful warning.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *