Dear leader are you a God or guide?

You are about to kick off a change process, a strategy, an operational improvement or brand initiative. You can choose the traditional command and control route using an elite team to gather the facts, weigh the options, make decisions, communicate what has been decided and execute. This is the leader as “God”. On the receiving end, employees will experience “decide and tell or decide and sell communication”, and become spectators, saboteurs or at best be compliant.

Or you can be the leader as “guide” where you form an elite team that determines what is “set in stone” – the givens – and reviews which other groups (or everyone) will add value if invited to challenge and contribute to both the “what”, the content of strategy/change and so on, and the “how”, the execution and delivery.

Many repeat the past and opt, often unconsciously, for decide and tell/sell. Most boomers and Generation X in positions of corporate power have known little other than command and control. If you are one of these or you work for one, you may also believe the myth that engaging people takes too long. It’s myth because command and control only appears quicker because it leaves the C suite faster.

Once the initiative hits the workforce it destabilises them and is slowed by the poor morale that is induced. It fails and another top-down initiative is launched to further exhaust everyone including the architects. This is vertical line strategy/change.

Real engagement requires a shift to more mutual styles of leadership

The engagement route is circular. The sponsor team decide the givens and design an engagement intervention that harvests specific challenges and contributions that add value and speed. Speed because if you have contributed to something you own it and will strive to make it work. You share the mission – people become self-engaged activists like the self-employed are and those in highly vocational activities. You don’t need an engagement programme in a Greenpeace or Médecins Sans Frontières.

The critical test of employee engagement is whether judgment is made by leadership teams on which groups will add value and drive execution if engaged in real decisions up front. No amount of dressing up decisions made by the few as “engagement” washes.

The elephant is that many leaders have not had this insight and believe they can spray engagement on to command and control. They can’t. Real engagement requires a shift to more mutual styles of leadership.

Employee engagement is not a programme and it’s not something that is managed by a functional department. These may be catalysts and offer expert advice, but they can’t do it for leaders, managers and supervisors. It is a skill-set which enables leaders at any level to review who will add value and speed if engaged before the leader closes the decision. But it’s only useful if the leaders have insight about their leadership style and have made a hard decision to be an authentic “engaging manager”.

For organisations it is a methodology to bring about more sustainable high-performing change/strategy.

At our consultancy, Engage for Change, we help organisations design and run leader and employee engagement interventions which capture the genius and experience of their people. We help organisations work with leaders and leadership groups to bring about the insight that enables them to benefit from skills and enables them to create conditions in which their people elect to engage themselves.

For more insight into how to drive performance, John Smythe’s book, The Velvet Revolution at Work: The Rise of Employee Engagement, the Fall of Command and Control is available from