Academic Leadership Organizational Change

Leading Change is Very Different from Commanding Change

Certain situations require ‘leadership’ other situations require ‘command.’

Senior people refer to ‘leadership’ when what they are really talking about is ‘command.’ In a crisis, we urgently require the answers of ‘command’.  During an organizational change, we require the questions of ‘leadership’.


As discussed in the previous post claiming that a building is on fire may do more harm than good.  I am weary of people asserting that what we need is change leadership, strong change leaders, where are the leaders, etc, etc, etc…

Both organizational change and leadership are vague/slippery concepts which even respected scholars would concede we do not fully understand. What we really need is a better differentiation of change leadership, from commanding change and managing change.

Throughout universities, hospitals and organizations, in general, I hear senior people referring to ‘leadership’ yet what they are really talking about is ‘command.’ All organizations at different times draw upon command, leadership, and management. Differentiating these concepts and their appropriateness to specific problems is currently missing from practitioner debates yet integral to organizational change processes.

If I couch the same idea slightly differently, Stacey (2012) eloquently argued that what masquerades as the leadership of change is closer to institutionalized bullying.  We need to be clear what leadership isn’t (see Figure 1, first column) and equally clear what leadership might be (see Figure 1, second column).

The compliance produced by
institutionalized bullying is
inimical to change.  Change will
then only come when deviants
utter ‘shrill cries of protest from the margin’ which those at the centre will probably classify as hysterical. (Stacey, 2012: 89)
Leaders inspire people by inviting
them into a dialogue where they
suspend assumptions and so learn and change. Well-intentioned rational people, engaged in dialogue under inspiring
leaders with vision, will willingly change. (Stacey, 2012: 80)
As it is…As it might be…
Figure 1 – Bullying is very different from leading change

How can we differentiate the problems organizations encounter and relate them to management, leadership, and command?

In seeking to understand leadership Grint (2005) revisited Rittel and Webber’s (1973) famous typology of tame, wicked and critical problems.  The tame problems were resolvable, their limited uncertainty suited management and management processes. Whereas wicked problems were complex and intractable without unilinear solutions.  These wicked problems were more suited to leadership requiring leaders to ask the right questions, rather than impose the right answersThese answers were not necessarily self-evident as they required a collaborative process of dialogue to make progress. Finally, critical problems were the very real crises which organizations encountered.  In these situations, with very little uncertainty and very little time, command was required. Command provides answers to enable taking decisive action in a crisis.

In further understanding leadership, Grint (2005) revisited Etzioni’s (1964) famous typology of power; calculative compliance, normative compliance, and coercive compliance. Calculative compliance was closest to management in organizing processes. Normative compliance with an emphasis on soft power and reference to shared values was closest to leadership in asking questions. Coercive compliance was all about hard and physical power, typified in the military and emergency services. Coercive compliance was closest to the command of providing answers.  

This reasoning suggests that in response to different organizational change problems there may be a requirement for management, leadership and command and the exercise of different forms of power.  This is helpful in disrupting the current leading change fetish as the universal panacea for all organizational change problems.

What is the difference between commanding change and leading change?

The change challenges organizations and societies face require very different conceptualizations of change leadership, from leading change as commanding change which we currently appear to experience.

Figure 2 questions today’s dominant model of leading change which I believe has damaged health and education institutions in the UK and perhaps beyond.  I believe in the social benefits of our National Health Service and the transformative potential of schools, colleges, and universities.

However, I increasingly fear that commanding change masquerading as leading change misunderstands that these organizations are collections of people.  The art of leading change is to meaningfully engage with such people through questioning and dialogue generating collaborative ownership/resolution of change problems.

Commanding Change
As it is …
Leading Change
As it might be…
Urgency/CrisisTime/Engagement Always
Required for Optimum Outcomes
Top Down


Strong Assertions




Hard/Physical PowerSoft Power/Shared Values
Perceived as Problematic
Perceived as Part of a
Change Process
Answers/Directives/EdictsCollaborative Ownership/
Resolution of Change Problems
Figure 2 – The difference between commanding change and leading change

I am afraid if we continue to misunderstand the hard/physical power of command which is urgently required in times of crisis as leading change nothing will change and nobody will change despite all the noise and senior management edicts.

The ‘irony of leadership’ is that collaboration diminishes the potential contribution of the leader (Grint, 2005).  The next time somebody asserts what we need is strong leadership ask them do they mean leadership or command?

Further Reading

Etzioni, A. (1964). Moderm organization. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Grint, K. (2005). Problems, problems, problems: The social construction of leadership. Human Relations58(11): 1467-1494.

Rittel, H.W. and Webber, M.M. (1973). Dilemmas in a general theory of planning. Policy Sciences4(2): 155-169.

Stacey, R. (2012). Tools and techniques of leadership and management: Meeting the challenge of complexity. London: Routledge.

2 replies on “Leading Change is Very Different from Commanding Change”

Thanks Paul – Yes I agree and I fear it is problematic in education and health sectors.

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