Published by:

  • Leadership – Speeches – Workshops
  • Personal Training – Consulting
  • Leadership – Marketing – Strategy

Vol. 8, No. 8
(626) 350-1500 Ext 102  

Extraordinary achievements demand extraordinary leaders.


When to Give and When not to Give Orders Directly

© 2010 William A. Cohen, PhD  

Adapted from  Heroic Leadership (Jossey – Bass, 2010)


Some years ago, my older son Barak went through and graduated from Ranger School in the Army. In Ranger School different battlefield missions in the field are assigned. These fall into four different phases each lasting about eight weeks involving urban, jungle, desert, and mountain commando warfare. An instructor accompanies each team of Ranger trainees. He assigns leadership roles on a rotating basis and grades the students on their performance.  While in the field, Ranger trainees get little food and are sleep deprived. The physical exertion, stress, and real danger are all significant. The elimination rate is usually 60% or higher for the course.

In the mountain (cold weather) phase, my son’s team included a number of his West Point classmates.  On one occasion after several days in the field, one his classmates was leading the group. He observed that another Ranger student, who was also a West Pointer, seemed to be faltering and actually fell in the snow. The student team leader went to the fallen student; yanked him roughly to his feet and spoke to him in a threatening manner. My son was standing next to the instructor neither of whom heard what was said by the student leader. The instructor beckoned to the student  leader to approach him. “What did you say to that guy?” he asked. “I said that if he didn’t get his act together I was going to beat the living shit out of him,” answered the team leader. My son told me that the instructor nodded affirmably and said, “That’s the way to do it.”

Barak knew that I don’t normally recommend this very physical style of leadership and wanted to know what I thought. I told him that I agreed with the instructor. Under these circumstances where everyone was tired, hungry, and greatly stressed, one or more of the other leadership influence tools was unlikely to be effective, especially since both student leader and the trainee that fell in the snow were both West Point classmates and presumably knew each before entering Ranger training.  It was unlikely that given the environment and the situation that other leadership tools would be effective.

According to my son, this approach did work and the faltering classmate completed the mission without further incident. I told my son that while he would be ill advised to use this direction tool on a routine basis, it was a valid tool that he could call upon from his leadership “bag of tricks” in a situation where it was needed and he had the authority to pull it off. In this instance the selection of the direction tactic was exactly right. I have also heard of this tool used by a first line supervisor in a very similar fashion in a civilian setting with an individual who had been consistently avoiding work and bullying the other members of the group to do his work for him. It also worked in that instance. Of course, use of the direction tool in such a physical fashion is extremely risky and the user really has to know what he is doing, less he be charged with assault, sued, or fired or all of these. It all depends on the many factors in the situation and in the environment. So the use of the direction tool in this extreme application is almost always not a good idea. Usually, just issuing orders, if the leader has the authority, is enough. That is the usual application of the direction tool.


How to Use the Direction Influence Tool Correctly

There are two situations where simply giving orders with no discussion is your best choice. But first, in order to employ this tool, you must have more power in the situation then those you intend to lead using it. If you try to this way without having some kind of authority, not only will you probably fail, but you may damage the relationship permanently.

The first situation where you may want to use direction is where there is little time for using the other tools. What you need done needs to be done now, with no time for discussion. In combat, the leader must frequently be authoritarian and rely heavily on direction for influence. There is no time for dilly-dallying when lives are at stake or when a slight delay can cause a major defeat or cost lives.

The second situation when you should use direction is when the action you want done may be good for the organization, but is less desirable for  individuals, or simply a part of the old culture and the way things have been done, and not desired by them.  Not infrequently, the need for direction is a combination of these two. While you can try to use the other influence tools first, eventually it may come down to using direction. In some cases where the environment in the organization is particularly bad, you may even find it necessary to use the direction tool first until you can get the environment changed. How you do this can make all the difference and sometimes you may have to be very creative about how you give direction.


Saving Lives and Winning Battles with Non-Verbal Orders

On November 14, 2004, Colonel James Coffman was Senior Advisor with the 1st Iraqi Special Police Commando Brigade in Mosul, Iraq, when it came under a surprise attack by a large force of insurgents. Coffman was seriously wounded, and all but one of the Iraqi commando officers in the brigade that he was advising were killed. Having no interpreter, Coffman led this brigade while under attack for four hours by going from man to man giving orders on what to do. Yet none of these men spoke English, and Coffman spoke no Arabic. Coffman won this battle entirely by looking each man in the eyes and telling him what to do by using hand and arm signals.[1] Sometimes you have verbal means available, and using the direction influence tool is still a tough job. Not speaking the language, it was a tougher challenge,

but still, Colonel Coffman managed to pull it off.


Until This Man Became CEO, the Avon Lady Almost Quit Calling

For a long time, our Navy was a very racist organization. The Navy’s policies were especially biased against African-Americans. Long after the other military services were on the road to change, the Navy had barely budged. Then Admiral Elmo Zumwalt became Chief of Naval Operations in 1970. Suffice to say that strong direction was needed to get the job done, which he did. The CEO of Avon was confronted with a similar problem only a few years afterwards.


Traditionally, it had been men who had always run Avon. They held all the senior management positions. When the environment started changing in the 1970s, these men almost ran Avon into to the ground. Avon sold its cosmetic products through independent saleswomen. These were mostly part time housewives who were not working in companies as part of the regular workforce. However, times were changing. The company’s research showed that women were entering the work force in greater numbers. So, when Avon Ladies called, women were less and less at home to buy. Moreover, it was getting harder and harder to recruit Avon Ladies, because they now had other work options. Avon was faced with fewer customers at home, and fewer salespeople to sell those products in the home. Its stock plummeted from $140 to $20 a share. Operating margins fell from 21.7 to 11.4 percent.[2] Avon operated in a women’s world. But what would Avon’s men decide to do?


Avon could have followed the market into the workplace. Instead, Avon’s male leaders first denied the trend, and then sought refuge through acquisition. Acquisition was considered a very macho thing to do. Maybe so, but it was a disaster. Afterwards, there were no less than three take-over attempts. Surviving these, Avon was able to boast only a horrendous debt, losses, and a product line that was dying of neglect.


Then Jim Preston took over as CEO. Preston knew it was time for a change, and he knew what that change had to be and that essentially it would require a new direction to change thinking, and he did. Said Head of Human Resources, Marcia Worthing: “We really filled the pipeline with women.” They did diversity training. They set quotas. When they analyzed performance reviews, they found out that men were hesitant about criticizing women subordinates and the need for improvement. They corrected that. Then, they found a difference in what it took to get promoted. Men were promoted based on potential and on accomplishments. But, women were promoted solely on accomplishments. It was almost as if they had to accomplish some set figure in the mind of their bosses, or they got a performance evaluation which read, “she’s not quite ready yet.” Preston began looking at that phrase as a sure sign he should give a woman a shot at a bigger job. He directed that it happen, and it did. Preston also changed and directed new executive perks. He did away with the annual hunting trips where the routine was for male executives to wile away the night drinking and playing cards. Season tickets to the Knicks and Yankees disappeared in favor of tickets to the New York Ballet and New York Philharmonic. Women were given showers and lockers in their bathrooms just like the men.


A new image of an Avon Lady made an appearance in an Avon advertising campaign. Avon Lady Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who is also a former Olympic athlete, typified this. Said Joyner-Kersee in the ad. “I throw a nine-pound shot put 51 feet. I bench-press 155 pounds. I have red toenails.”


What were the results of Preston’s leadership and his use of the direction tool? Well, for one thing when Preston retired, four of the six candidates to replace him as CEO were women. And in 1999 when he left Avon, that is exactly what happened. Andrea Jung became Avon’s first female CEO.[3]


This new emphasis on women for a women’s product and market had immediate  positive quantifiable results. Sales increased by $4.8 billion, up 7%. Profits were $318 million, up 11%. Avon stock shot up 52%. Avon stock produced a 30% compounded annual return to stockholders, including dividends in less than ten years. This outpaced the Standard & Poors 500. Because of Preston’s effective use of the direction tool, the correct one for this situation, Avon prospered.[4]


She’s Not the Grinch, but She Used Direction and Told Them They Must Give Up Christmas

Grace Pastiak worked for Telelabs in Lisle, Illinois. Tellabs designs, makes, and markets expensive telecommunications products. When she was Director of Manufacturing, her department won a major contract. The only problem was that it was the holiday season, and the job had to be completed by the end of the year.  Grace always took pride in her group’s ability to take on any job and complete it successfully. So did her group. But now, she faced a dilemma. Accepting this job would mean time away from families during the Christmas holidays. Yet, the contract was very important. She did not want to turn it down. Pastiak knew that she needed the full support of her workers. But how could she do this without arousing resentment? She knew that under these circumstances, she need to use some form of the direction tool.  So Grace did something she had never done before. She called her employees together and explained all the facts face-to-face. She told them that the job had to be completed by the end of the year. She told them that the job was so important that they were going to take the contract. To this, she was committed. She also told them that it would involve time away from home at Christmas and New Year. They would be able to attend religious services, but that was about it. This was direction, but how could she gain their support? Grace was willing and committed to the project. However, because of the extent of the sacrifice necessary, they would help make the decision. And, there were alternatives. She offered several. They could contract to do only half of the order before the deadline. They could bring part-time labor in. Or, they could subcontract some of the production to other companies. She told them again that she wanted to take the whole contract and accept the deadline as they had always done. But, it was their choice. So even though this was direction, she made it more acceptable by giving her workers a choice.

Giving her workers a choice on how to do the job also proved that this was not a regular job order and extremely important. Her workers voted to take the full contract and not to bring in part time workers or to subcontract any of the work. The contract was completed during the holiday season without difficulty. Is it any wonder that subordinates and superiors alike call her “Amazing Grace.”[5] [6]


Using Direction Can Be Overused

Once you begin using the direction influence tool routinely, it becomes habit. It’s so easy.  It can become overused. You don’t have to think about those you lead at all. You simply issue an order. General Bernard Rodgers, who spent more than twelve years as a four-star general and senior Army commander once jokingly said that his biggest shock after retirement was that he got in the backseat of his car and waited for the car to pull out. His driver didn’t need a verbal order. The fact that Rodgers was sitting there was enough and the driver knew where to go. But, the car didn’t move because for the first time in twelve years, General Rodgers no longer had a driver.  He was sitting in the car by himself. Unfortunately, routinely using direction can have unwanted results. You may no longer get input from those you lead. “Fine,” say your followers, “If that so and so wants us to do this and everything gets screwed up, it’s not our fault.” Mistakes that you make that others might have caught are allowed to go on uncorrected. Soon, your organization is brought to a standstill. Yet everyone goes about following your orders to the letter. And that’s just the trouble.

Erroneous Assumptions Could Cause Failure

When you use the direction tactic, you’ve got to make sure it’s done in the right way. Many just give orders. They assume that these orders are understood. They may not be. Back in 1941, the nation was tooling up for World War II. Aircraft companies hired engineers as fast as they graduated. Unfortunately, some of the leaders in these organizations had not been given proper training in leadership. One engineering supervisor in the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle was assigned five recently graduated engineers. On their first day of work, he dealt out jobs one after the other in an automatic fashion. He didn’t explain them, and he neither encouraged questions, nor did he ask if those on the receiving end understood the job he wanted done. He handed one engineer a set of master aluminum with heavy ink smudges, “blueprints” for the B-17 engine.  He told the new engineer, “I want these cleaned so there isn’t a spot on them. And I want them finished by this afternoon. Now, go. Hop to it!”


These “blueprint” masters were aluminum engravings showing how the engine was manufactured and assembled. They were used as masters to print the paper version, which were used on the production line. The aluminum “blueprint” had picked up ink and grease. It was dirty from use. What was wanted was to clean the ink and grease off of these valuable masters. They were valued then at about $10,000 each, worth many times that in today’s dollars. But the supervisor said that he wanted them cleaned so “there wasn’t a spot on them.” The raw engineer not understanding these instructions, got some Brillo pads and with considerable effort polished the metal until it gleamed, scrubbing off the important engravings. He was fired when he presented them proudly to the supervisor at the end of the day. They fired the wrong man. It should have been the engineering supervisor who gave these orders to an inexperienced engineer. When you use direction, be particular careful not to make assumptions about the instructions you give. They could cause a disaster.


Direction May Not Be In Your Own Best Interests

Another reason that you don’t want to use the direction tactic under all conditions across the board is that, even if it works, it might not be in your own best interests. I knew a young lieutenant once that got so much into using the direction tactic that he used it not only in leading his subordinates, but his colleagues and superiors as well. He confused leadership with dominating others. For awhile he was successful. He was so bold in giving his direction, and frequently right, that everyone just did what he wanted.  He was discharged after receiving several  bad officer’s effectiveness reports. What was his offense? The report didn’t use these words, but it boiled down to one fact. He used what is a perfectly good influence tool under inappropriate conditions and in an inappropriate manner. You can even lead your boss and your associates, but rarely by direction and giving orders.



  • Don’t use the direction influence tool in every instance; it may not be in your best interest’s or the organization’s
  • The direction influence tool can be combined with other tools or options which allow giving choice
  • This is the right tool when time is limited, you have the authority, and when what needs to be done is particularly difficult or may be more in the organization’s interests, than the individuals


[1]Dodd, Matthew , “Coffman’s Commandos,” Defense Watch, July 5, 2007, Accessed at 2007.db&command=viewone&op=t&id=178&rnd=293.99304438112193,  February 14, 2009

[2] No author listed, “Avon Tries a New Formula to Restore Its Glow,” Business Week (July 2, 1984) p.46.

[3]No author listed, “Andrea Jung,” Wikipedia, Accessed at February 5, 2009

[4] Morris, Betsy, “If Women Ran the World,” Fortune (July 21, 1997) pp.74-79.

[5] Glasier, Connie and Barbara Steinberg Smalley, Swim With the Dolphins (New York: Warner Books, 1995) pp.12-17

[6] Holusha, John, “Grace Pastiak’s ‘Web of Inclusion,” New York Times, Business Section, May 5, 1991. Accessed at , January 19, 2009.

For more information, contact me directly by e-mail at or telephone (626) 794-5998. Yes we do give international seminars — The U.S. country code is 01.



If you cry “forward,” you must without fail make plain in what direction to go. Anton Chekhov , Russian Writer