Tired of being told that you should be a leader? Do not worry. Pirate captains had great leadership skills, and they were still beaten to oblivion by Navy Captains who exercised pure command on their ships. Is then leadership less effective than command? Keep reading. I have all the answers. Or so my mother tells me.

Leadership-based approaches are not necessarily more effective than pure command.

The Problem

If you were ever at the head of a team, you probably wondered how you were performing. Were you commanding your team, or was it pure leadership? You probably even tried to read a book on the topic, but instead of the promised enlightenment, you ended up exactly where you started. You saw lists of qualities defining a leader, but both your soul and intellect kept screaming the obvious: should not any good commander possess those qualities too? So, what is the difference?

Do not fret. Your soul and intellect were right all along. Whatever qualities those books say a leader should possess, those are qualities that any commander should identically possess (incompetent commanders excluded, of course). Any framework using the model “Leaders do ‘A,’ while commanders do ‘B,’” is wrong. If they are any good, both leaders and commanders will do the exact same things: the right ones. What distinguishes leadership from command is not what you do; it is how and why it becomes done. Furthermore, neither way is better than the other. Both may work or fail in different contexts and at different times. There are times for leadership, and there are times for command. In fact, most of us exercise both simultaneously, and we do not even get to choose which one we are using. Let me explain.

Pirate ships: The rule of democracy and leadership

Discussing the core nature of the pirate code would take us too far. Suffice it to say that pirate ships of old constituted very democratic universes. Captains (and other officials) were elected, could be deposed at any time, and had very limited powers when not in battle. The crew had the authority to determine where to go and what to plunder. If a Captain had a particular idea or plan that he wanted to pursue, he would have to convince the crew to follow his reasoning, believe in what he believed, and thus do what he wanted them to do. This required leadership.

Leadership: The ability to have people follow you, your plan, vision, or intended course of action, not because they are supposed to obey you, but because they believe and voluntarily adhere to the said vision, plan, or course of action.
Pirate ships. The rule of democracy and leadership.

Navy ships, in contrast, even when deployed to defend democracy, were never meant to exercise it. Any crew member with loud dreams of on-board voting ballots, freedom of speech, or free-will, would probably be flogged, keeled, or hanged, depending on the epoch, the ship, and the Captain's particular implementation of the Articles-of-War. When the Captain of a man-of-war made a decision, he would issue a command and people would do his bidding, because that is what they were supposed to do. The Captain commands and the crew obeys, because it is written so; because that is how their world is organized.

Command: The act of determining what other people will do, using the hierarchical or functional dependencies established in your mutual organization or context, which determine that your decisions are to be obeyed.
Navy ships. The rule of pre-defined order and command.

The world at large. The rule of mix and proportion

Let us suppose that you are chairing a meeting with your trusty employees, in which you will present the strategy that will make your enterprise survive and prosper in the next decade. You present your ideas, and because you are a knowledgeable person, passionate about your ideas, and have a good grasp on how to handle the challenges facing your company, seven of the ten people in the room become totally convinced and adhere to your vision and approach. The remaining three have doubts concerning the efficacy of your proposals, and are not fully convinced; despite that, they will do as asked, because you are the boss, and implementing your decisions is what they have been hired to do. This means that when the thing gets done, 7/10 of it will have been done through leadership, and 3/10 will have been done by command. But who’s counting, right? You never know the score when you end a meeting.

It does not really matter why things get done, as long as the right things get done, and in a manner in which everyone feels respected and adequately valorized. There is no magic about leadership, and there is no magic about command. Be a leader or be a commander; be who you are. Sometimes, you will find that leadership will not work and things must be done by command; other times, you will find that simply issuing commands will not be effective, and that you need to go the extra mile and really convince people, getting them to adhere and believe in your vision and ideas. Be who you are, and proceed as required. Just be efficient, thoughtful, and considerate in whatever you do.