Leadership styles, inertia and 'productive tension'

The recent headlines about Priti Patel have some relevance for the field of leadership studies.

Without commenting directly on the case of Ms Patel, who apologised but remained in post as Home Secretary with prime ministerial backing after an inquiry found she had breached the ministerial code, here are three observations about the general matters this case seems to raise:

Directive leadership

First, what is called directive leadership is one of the styles that leaders adopt with their colleagues, subordinates or followers. 

This form of leadership is rather out of fashion these days, with much emphasis on participatory or empowering styles both for cultural and for performance reasons - the idea being that empowerment can generate superior performance. But directive leadership is a widespread form of leading: it entails what one can colloquially call ‘tell not sell’ or command and control. And it has its place.

For instance, in situations of urgency where quick decisions are needed it is very appropriate; or in early stage start-ups or when rapid change is occurring it can be useful for the clarity of direction it can establish.  For it involves the leader outlining clear goals, an emphasis on the leader taking the decisions and others executing those decisions with little discussion or debate about how instructions are to be carried out, and low tolerance for failure to deliver. Steve Jobs had many of these attributes and Elon Musk is said to operate like that too. My point here is that there may be a fine line between what one person thinks is a perfectly legitimate form of directive leadership to get things done efficiently and his or her subordinates perceiving it as excessively overbearing to the point of bullying. This line will be very subjective.

'Productive tension'

Second, we can think of this not only as a matter of a leader’s style but as being about the appropriate working relationship between two very senior parties who collaborate with different roles - say minister and civil servant or chair and CEO. My view is that the best results do not come from a very comfortable relationship; rather there has to be what I call productive tension.

This should feel somewhat uncomfortable: it involves challenge and robust discussion at a fundamental level but also with sufficient trust between the parties that they are focused on a common good.

...without trust, challenge feels destructive and personal.

Productive tension is critical when senior colleagues with different roles and responsibilities are working together, but one is nominally in charge of the other while also reliant on that person to deliver. It involves tough, demanding discussion, mutual scrutiny and feedback to drive decision-making. Without sufficient challenge, a close working relationship can be too cosy and groupthink emerges; but without trust, challenge feels destructive and personal. Importantly, this sort of productive tension can only be built over time, and when each party feels the other is competent and committed to the same goals with the same intensity. And there has to be a high degree of honesty between parties.


Third, and linked to the other two points, it is no secret that large organisations in both the public and private sectors are often full of very competent people who are well-intentioned, but these organisations operate like super-tankers. Direction changes take time; adapting them is slow and tortuous.

...inertia and resistance are very different phenomena.

These organisations suffer from what I call inertia, implying a disinclination to move from where you are right now. This can be frustrating for leaders who, in my experience, mistake inertia for resistance to innovation, agility, change and new ways of working.

But inertia and resistance are very different phenomena and require different remedies. Where ministers are brought in with tough mandates and very challenging political timetables as well as a lot of public scrutiny, they will hate inertia, even if this is actually built into systems to make sure things go smoothly. Inertia can therefore be the recipe for frustration and an inclination to blame the senior bureaucrat, but we need to understand that inertia is much more systemic than that implies. It will not be addressed by changing one person, however senior.

The result: we vent our frustration by changing people when we have to work much more deeply and systematically on culture, work processes and other aspects of how things get done in organisations.