The risks of being too directive as a leader

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90% of employees have worked under a bad manager at some point in their career. This shocking statistic, from research by the Institute of Leadership and Management, shows that management isn’t often held in high regard. What it doesn’t tell us is in what way they were bad managers. I am going to take a punt and assume that a fair proportion of poor managers are over directive. Does that ring true with your experience?

Let’s explore the risk of having an overly directive management style. 


Compassion for the managers 

The starting point for me is to have some compassion for these poor managers. It is likely that they are not good managers for one of a number of reasons: lack of training; lack of guidance as to how to manage well; lack of feedback on the things they aren’t doing so well; poor role models. So it’s not surprising that some managers don’t quite find the way to be able to manage well. 

What is a directive management style? 

Let’s distinguish between a helpful directive style, and an unhelpful directive one. Sometimes, being directive is a necessary approach. In high risk scenarios, for example. Or when there are very clear protocols to follow that can’t be deviated from. When I was younger, in one job I was appointed to be the organisation’s fire officer. And when the alarms went off, it was clear that I had to be firm, directive and give very clear instructions. This is true for many roles. 

Sometimes managers who need to be directive at times choose to be directive at all times. It is likely that in many roles, there are times for being directive, and times for being less so. Observe a restaurant kitchen, for example. During service time, when there are customers waiting, the person in charge is likely to be very directive. In fact, the name of the person who reads out the orders is called the aboyeur – the shouter. But there are other times,  during the food preparation phase, when there is less pressure, and the head chef can be a little calmer. 

Directive, or just being clear and firm 

This is an important distinction. Sometimes being directive can be confused with being clear and firm. Look at a primary school teacher, as an example. Often they are very clear, especially when giving instructions or trying to move the class of children from one place to another. But it’s often presented in an inclusive, encouraging way, rather than a forceful way. 

In my own career, there have been times when I have really enjoyed working for people who are clear, unequivocal and offer direction. But only if it is on the firm end of the spectrum, and not the harsh end! 

Is being non-directive a strong or a weak approach? 

This is a question that I have been asking, and others have asked me. In one way, being more inclusive, democratic and collaborative is a sign that managers aren’t taking up the authority that may be available. And traditional managers will argue that this is a weak approach. On the other hand, being prepared to cede authority, let others make decisions, and move towards consensus is very trusting, open and supportive. And because of that, I would argue that being non-directive can be a strong approach. I’m not talking about an anything goes, laissez-faire approach, but about genuine collaboration. 

And how is coaching non-directive? 

Coaches know this very well. We sign up to a set of beliefs that show we trust the person we are working with is capable of coming to their own conclusions about issues relating to them. Outside of emergencies, we don’t offer advice or guidance, nor do we look to lead the conversations.  

Managers who use coaching approaches also know how to be non-directive. Unlike external coaches, they probably have ideas about what their team member needs to do, and what would benefit them and the organisation. Even so, the coaching approach they will take means that they will hold back from offering their own solutions, right until the end of the conversation. They’ll explore the thoughts, ideas and feelings of their team members, before perhaps offering a suggestion at the end. 

Does choosing to be a non-directive style of manager mean that we are never firm?  

Absolutely not! There are times in most roles when we have to be clear and firm. Even the most nurturing manager may find moments when they want to offer direction, when there is a sense of urgency or risk. It does seem quite important to not take an “I will never be firm and directive” stance, as we never know when the time will come to do so. 

Final words

This blog was exploring the use of directive approaches as a manager, and offering an alternative – a coaching approach. If this appeals to you and you want to pursue this approach, get in touch with us and we’ll happily provide all the resources you need. And if you are already taking this approach, do write and let us know how well it works. We’ll love to hear from you. 

Happy managing and coaching. 

If you were stimulated by this article and want to know more about how to use coaching for your career, your organisation or your life generally, then get in contact. Email us at or book in a time for a 30-minute phone or Zoom call  

We look forward to hearing from you! 


If you were stimulated by this article and want to know more about how to use coaching for your career, your organisation or your life generally, then get in contact. Email us at or book in a time for a 30-minute phone or Zoom call  

We look forward to hearing from you! 

Charlie Warshawski is a leadership coach and coach trainer. He runs an accredited coach training organisation, Love Your Coaching, offering coaching qualifications. In his coaching, he works 1:1 with leaders, business owners and entrepreneurs, supporting them on topics that are both professional and personal – according to their needs 

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