Ask, Don’t Tell; Listen, Don’t Direct: What Is Meant By, “Don’t Tell” and “Don’t Direct”?

Good leadership is the balance between simply getting things done, and developing your team’s ability to get the next thing done well.

by Dan Harrison

As a manager and business leader, of course you will give direction. Within this series of anecdotes titled, “Ask, Don’t Tell; Listen, Don’t Direct”, you have witnessed management direction many times, but you will have noticed that just as often, you have not, and for good reason.

Of course, we give direction. That’s our job; but so is developing our employees, and just as important is making the right decisions and giving the right direction. These anecdotes have been developed in part to show this balance, a balance our best leaders struggle to find throughout their careers.

And this struggle is easy to recognize once you know what to look for.

Good luck!

Dan Harrison is an SMA Principal Associate in our Technical Management & Engineering Services Practice, and has over 35 years of experience in aerospace engineering. We thank Dan for his leadership contributions to our Professional Insights series. You can read his previous “Ask, Don’t Tell; Listen, Don’t Direct” articles here:

  1. Organizational Alignment. Insights on how to lead your team to find alignment between the organizations in your company.
  2. Why Call for an Ordnance Summit? Risk Management. The importance of effective risk management, especially when working with complex system development programs.
  3. Schedule Recovery. How working backwards from the desired result can help with program schedule recovery when the situation looks hopeless.
  4. What Does/Can a CAM Do? Examples on the role of the Control Account Manager (CAM) in the project team.
  5. A “Shaming.” Can shaming a team member into doing something can achieve the desired results?
  6. Benchmarking with Competitors. How benchmarking your organization with your competitors can improve your market position.
  7. Is “Cross-functional Teamwork” an Oxymoron? How reframing the problem can improve the effectiveness of cross-functional teams.

If you’re building a team and you have positions you can’t fill, you need to use SMA Talent on Demand (TOD®)! With TOD®, you can find experienced talent, such as Dan, matched to your exact needs:

Published on June 5, 2020 by

Dick Eassom, CF APMP Fellow