Fundamental Approaches to Leadership

Initially posted on March 17, 2016. For more information visit


On February 23, I authored my first blog post (click here) by discussing one particular definition of leadership: the art of getting others to do what you want because they want to.

What I did not discuss are two fundamental approaches toward fulfilling this definition. Admittedly, there are several other approaches to leadership that individuals can rely upon, but these two serve as the most basic ways to lead. They are: Command and/or Empower.

In the first approach (see Figure 1), Command, the leader uses his or her position and/or influence to order others into a specific action. The primary motivation behind this approach is through fear or coercion – that something bad will happen if the follower does not act on the leader’s order.

Order and Response

Examining Figure 1 demonstrates that using the Command approach generates an almost immediate response from the follower(s). Once the leader issues an order the team/group responds instantly and produces a high level of activity. Additionally, for a limited amount of time the leader can continue commanding others and maintain this high response rate. However, at some point the followers become angry, frustrated, or exhausted with this approach. Eventually, they refuse to comply with the leader’s order (or, in more extreme cases, revolt against the leader) and their level of response plummets.

Examples of the Command approach exist in every facet of society: from the boss who orders around employees and threatens to fire people who do not comply; or the college professor who springs pop quizzes on the class and threatens to fail students who do not study; or the police officer who threatens to shoot if the suspect does not drop to the ground and submit to an investigation. All of these situations will experience an immediate response from the follower. However, if the only influence exerted by the leader consists of fear and coercion, eventually the followers will refuse to obey those orders and the Command approach begins to break down.

In contrast, leaders can adopt the second approach and seek to Empower their followers (see Figure 2). Here the primary motivation is inspiration and the leader uses his or her position and/or influence to develop and build up others.

Empower and Response

Examining Figure 2 reveals that the leader can generate the same level of response using this approach as with the Command approach. Additionally, once the follower reaches this response level the leader can sustain it almost indefinitely. However, the downside is that it takes a lot more time and investment on the part of the leader to generate this level of response. Therefore, leaders who wish to empower their teams need to prepare to invest themselves in this longterm developmental strategy.

Of course, similar to the Command approach, there is a risk with this approach as well. Rather than having to worry about followers rebelling against the leader if the Command approach is used, individuals who work to empower others must accept the possibility that at some point those followers will leave the team and move to another organization. That is, while the leader is investing time and resources into empowering the team some individuals may take their newly developed skills and seek opportunities elsewhere. While it may be easy for the leader to become frustrated if this happens, he or she should take comfort that they helped develop another individual.

Between the two approaches, Command and Empower, the former is certainly the easier path and the latter takes a much longer commitment. However, over time the Empower approach will lead to a stronger team that is able to accomplish quite a lot because the leader has inspired them to become better and supported their journey. Consequently, the Empower approach is the one most attributed to successful leadership.


Author: Kirk Randazzo

I am a Professor of Political Science and Director of the Carolina Leadership Initiative at the University of South Carolina. I also conduct public presentations on a variety of aspects related to leadership, conflict management, and public speaking.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s