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What is a Directive Leadership Style and How Does It Work? - HRDQ

What is a Directive Leadership Style and How Does It Work?

Good leadership is an essential component in the success of any business. Throughout history, countless theories have been proposed about what makes good leaders, how leadership works, and how to be an effective leader.

One of the major concepts in leadership theory is known as the path-goal theory. That is one of the best-known contingency theories of leadership, along with Fiedler's contingency theory and Blanchard's situational theory. The path-goal model outlines four leadership styles: directive, achievement-oriented, participative, and supportive.

According to the path-goal theory, leaders should be able to engage in different types of leadership behavior as dictated by the demands and nature of a given situation.

In today's post, we will talk about the directive leadership style and how it works. 

Table of Contents

What Is a Directive Leadership Style?

Based on the path-goal theory, directive leadership is one of the four leadership behaviors developed by Robert House in 1971 as inspired by the work of Martin G. Evans. Each leadership behavior sets clearly defined rules and objectives for team members.

Team Listening to a Leader

The directive leadership style involves a leader that takes nearly complete control of the action and direction of a team. They help guide employees' work goals and establish the exact steps they will need to take to reach those goals.

Directive leaders take responsibility for decision-making rather than collaborating with their team or incorporating employee feedback. They tell their followers what needs to be done and how it needs to be done, rather than letting them make their own decisions or choose their own path for accomplishing tasks.

What Are the Characteristics of a Directive Leader?

1. They Assert Their Authority Right From the Start

A leader using a directive leadership style will assert their authority immediately once they take charge of a team. They don't feel the need to first win the affection of their employees.

Leader Asserting Authority

A clear standard is set from the start, where tasks are delegated clearly, and individuals are held accountable for what they do and do not accomplish.

2. They Take Total Control

A directive leader takes complete responsibility for the outcomes a team achieves and takes it upon themselves to choose the team's objectives. They will then delegate tasks and do what is necessary to reach these goals and objectives.

Leader Taking Control

Usually, this type of leader isn't particularly open to feedback from their team. Employees are generally less likely to challenge decisions or question methods when this type of leadership style is employed, largely because the leader doesn't tolerate it.

3. They Have a Set Protocol They Follow

While leaders using a directive style take total control over the goals and actions of a team, this doesn't mean that they are coming up with their objectives or methods out of thin air. Instead, they almost always use established and proven standards that they know work.

Leader Following Protocol

This leadership style isn't particularly friendly to innovation and instead relies on protocols known to produce results.

4. They Enforce a Hierarchy

Hierarchy is an integral part of a directive leadership style. The reason for this is that the leader needs to be able to hand out tasks without there being any issues in terms of who has authority over who.

Leaders Overseeing Tasks

The hierarchy of positions is strict and well-defined, reducing bumps in the road and issues when delegating projects.

Understanding what it means to be an ineffective leader is just as important as grasping the essential components of effective leadership. Check out these fifteen signs of ineffective leadership.

What Is the Path-Goal Theory?

The path-goal theory, also known as the path-goal model or the path-goal theory of leader effectiveness, is a leadership theory that was first developed in 1971 and later revised in 1996.

Assembling Steps to Success

One of the central ideas in this theory is that a leader's success is defined by their ability to promote their followers' abilities, goals, and overall satisfaction.

Rather than using one leadership style, the theory argues that leaders should be flexible and use different leadership styles depending on the demands of each particular situation.

1. Directive Path-Goal Clarifying Leader Behavior

Leader Guiding a Team

In this approach, employees are informed about expectations, and the leader helps guide them on each step. Teams can enjoy a sense of goal clarification, direction, and belonging when this leadership style is used correctly.

2. Achievement-Oriented Leader Behavior

This leadership style involves leaders setting challenging goals for their teams and then stepping back.

Leader Setting Team Goals

In this hands-off approach, the leader has confidence in their employees to come up with creative ways to achieve the goals or complete the tasks they've been given.

3. Participative Leader Behavior

Leader Receiving Feedback

Participative leaders are highly collaborative and very involved in completing a given task with their team, relying heavily on feedback and input from subordinates.

4. Supportive Leader Behavior

This leadership behavior is most useful when team members are under a lot of stress in pursuing particularly demanding goals.

Supportive Leader Assisting Team

Leaders help to provide a solid support foundation for their subordinates and help to emphasize the well-being of the entire team.

Where Is Directive Leadership Used?

Directive leadership isn't usually advised in the corporate world because the strict, unforgiving style can be perceived as negative by employees and lead to undesirable outcomes in the company culture. The most common place that this type of leadership style is used is in a military setting.

Using a Directive Leadership Style

While it likely isn't a good idea to use a directive leadership style as your baseline approach in the office, that doesn't mean taking complete charge of the situation isn't appropriate in some circumstances.

When Should You Use a Directive Leadership Style?

The path-goal theory of leadership and other leadership theories propose that leaders should be able to employ different styles depending on the needs of a situation. While a directive leadership style might not be ideal for most business scenarios, there are certainly some circumstances that call for a leader to take charge.

One such situation is if you are dealing with a team almost entirely comprised of new members. When you have inexperienced workers that need a lot of direction, a directive leadership style can be appropriate.

Directive Leader Assisting Team

Another example is if there is an emergency situation for which a fast solution is required. In these scenarios, it can be vital for a leader to make an autonomous decision and direct their employees accordingly.

Directive leadership can also be necessary for issues that are simply non-negotiable. For instance, this leadership style is often the right choice to ensure health and safety standards are upheld.

What Are the Benefits of Directive Leadership?

1. Clarity

Leader Providing Clarity

One of the benefits of directive leadership is the clarity that it provides. The direction and purpose of the organization are clearly outlined right from the get-go, and there is no confusion over what a team is trying to achieve and the steps they need to take to reach their goals.

2. Consistency

Directive leaders believe in adhering to strict deadlines. They aren't the type to be exceptionally forgiving when employees have excuses for why they haven't finished a task by the agreed-upon date.

Team Working on a Project

Though this doesn't particularly create the best morale in the workplace, it does typically help ensure that projects get done on time.

3. Structure

Though structure can feel stifling in some instances, it can also be necessary for productivity and advancement. When a situation lacks direction, everyone can benefit from directive leadership.

Directive Leader Providing Structure

A team that is unsure of what they are trying to achieve can be transformed when an individual can take charge of the situation and give everyone appropriate direction.

4. Efficiency

Though many leaders in a corporate environment stay away from directive leadership because of the style's drawbacks, one significant benefit is its efficiency. These leaders aren't taking the time to listen to employee feedback and aren't procrastinating when making big decisions.

An Efficient Team

Instead, they prioritize the problem, use their established protocols and standards to find the proper solution, and then direct their team clearly on what needs to be done and how. This can reduce a lot of time in the decision-making process and help solutions come about in a much more timely manner.

5. Safety and Security

Safety and security are often one of the top priorities of directive leaders. Driven by rules and regulations, they aren't prone to bending the rules or cutting corners.

Team Following Health Safety Rules

In workplaces or circumstances (such as military environments) where rules are in place specifically for the safety of everyone involved, directive leadership can be essential to reducing or eliminating workplace accidents.

6. Accountability

Directive leaders are always watching their team like a hawk. There isn't any wiggle room for employees to slack off or make excuses for why they didn't meet their deadline.

Leader Managing Team

While this might not be ideal for company morale in a corporate setting, it can help to hold workers accountable.

7. Clear Expectations

In some scenarios, a team might struggle to achieve its goals because what is expected of them isn't clearly defined. With a directive leadership style, everything that a worker needs to do is communicated without any nuance.

A Team Meeting

Each person involved knows exactly what their role is, what their responsibilities are, and what they need to get done.

What Are the Drawbacks of Directive Leadership?

1. Stifles Creativity and Innovation

Since directive leaders tend to take such total control, employees aren't particularly motivated to think creatively or offer innovative solutions to problems.

Unmotivated Team Member

Workers can feel less autonomous and more restricted under this type of leader, and they can feel disincentivized from really putting their heads in the game because the leader doesn't have a history of incorporating employee feedback into their decision-making.

2. Lacks the Benefits of Adaptability

In today's fast-moving economy, the strict structure implied by the directive leadership style doesn't allow organizations to benefit from adaptability and flexibility.

Employees Facing a Challenge

These are crucial elements in surviving and thriving in an evolving industry, and successful leaders typically need to be open-minded and flexible to deal with an ever-shifting landscape.

3. Reduces Morale, Engagement, and Ownership

While a directive leadership style might make workers more accountable, it can also reduce their sense of ownership, decrease engagement, and wreak havoc on morale.

Since employees don't have any freedom to make decisions in how they tackle tasks or problems, they might not feel particularly connected to their work. Instead, they are just carrying out the specific duties delegated to them in a way that is less likely to produce a feeling of ownership.

Unengaged Team of Employees

This whole arrangement can also reduce engagement among employees. After all, when your voice isn't heard in the office, and there's no benefit to trying to offer your feedback, workers are likely to eventually reduce their mental involvement and just go through the motions.

Lastly, directive leadership can be terrible for morale. That means you could end up dealing with a lot of turnover and the other problems associated with low morale, which could seriously cancel out the perceived benefits of this leadership style.

4. Highly Dependent on the Specific Leader

Finally, whether this leadership style is effective has everything to do with the particular leader as well as the role that they're in. If a leader doesn't have the adequate experience to control a project or team, chaos can ensue. 

Ineffective Directive Leader

In some circumstances, a leader might be so established and respected in their field that the people they manage might be happy to participate in such a strict and hierarchical structure.

The Difference Between Directive Leadership and Direct Leadership

It's worth noting that directive leadership and direct leadership are similar but not identical terms.

Employee Speaking With a Team Leader

While directive leadership is a behavior style that is one of four found in the path-goal theory of leadership, direct leadership is one of four leadership communication styles along with spirited, considerate, and systematic.

What's Your Leadership Style?

As leadership theories have evolved, it has been increasingly popular to recognize that flexibility in one's leadership style is ideal in the workplace. This means being able to adapt and change your leadership style in different situations to best suit your employees and the task at hand.

The first step in developing new leadership skills is to be self-aware of your existing leadership style. The better you understand the skills you already have in your arsenal, the more ability you'll have to incorporate new leadership concepts and styles into your management strategy.

Leader of a Team

HRDQ's What's My Leadership Style is a comprehensive assessment tool you can use to gain awareness of your leadership style. You'll find that your increased awareness of your leadership style will significantly impact your performance and efficacy as a leader.

Have any questions about the directive leadership style? If so, please feel free to drop those in the comments section, and we'll be sure to get back to you within a day or two! We make it a point to reply to every comment and question we receive, and we'd love to assist you however we can!

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About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.