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What is Task-Oriented Leadership?

Task-oriented leadership often is contrasted against relations-oriented leadership. One emphasizes the tasks needed to achieve goals, and the other focuses on relationships required to keep employees satisfied with their work.

Students of leadership will find that the task-oriented style fits the definition of a manager while the people-oriented style focuses on the characteristics of a leader. According to the Center for Leadership Development, “The manager’s job is to plan, organize and coordinate. The leader’s job is to inspire and motivate.”

Leadership students need to understand the difference between task- and relations-oriented styles because they are likely to encounter both over the course of their careers. Which leadership style is better? Which style would you prefer as a future leader or future employee?

Task-oriented leadership definition

What is task-oriented leadership? Perhaps the most concise definition of task-oriented leadership is “doing whatever it takes to get the job done.” The approach tends to be autocratic and emphasizes completing tasks required to meet organizational goals.

While it has its place in a modern workplace, task-oriented leadership can lack attention to the well-being of team members, which can prove to be a deficiency in many leadership scenarios.

Qualities and examples of task-oriented leadership

A task-oriented leader places a heavy emphasis on structure, plans, and schedules for getting things done. The task-oriented leadership style might include:

  • Step-by-step planning and reward/punishment systems
  • Constantly defining structure and goals
  • Prioritizing achievement of specific outcomes
  • Sticking to rigid schedules
  • Requiring employees to set process-oriented goals and formulate plans to achieve them

When should this type of leadership be used? Why does task-oriented leadership work? One prudent principle of modern leadership theory is that leaders should base their approach on each unique situation they face. If certain team members have poor time management skills, task-oriented leadership is a possible solution. Also, a workplace with tight deadlines can benefit from task-oriented leadership.

Apparently William Shakespeare advocated this leadership approach centuries ago with his observation, “Better three hours too soon than one minute too late.”

Potential drawbacks of task-oriented leadership

Because task-oriented leadership is essentially an autocratic style, it can lead to retention and motivation problems.

Jim Collins, author of the leadership classic “Good to Great,” summed up what’s at stake for most leaders: “Those who build great companies understand that the ultimate throttle on growth for any great company is not markets, or technology, or competition, or products. It is one thing above all others: the ability to get and keep enough of the right people.”

Contemporary leadership studies have illustrated that both task-oriented and relations-oriented leadership models are too simplistic for many modern workplace environments. Additionally, the increased prominence of individuals and “knowledge workers” (a term popularized by Peter Drucker) has made the leadership process more complicated.

As a result, task-oriented leadership as a distinct leadership style often has been replaced by more specialized approaches such as situational and transformational leadership.

One thing’s for certain: students of leadership need to learn to be flexible.

“The kind of thinking that led to past success will not lead to future success.”

— Ken Blanchard, John Carlos, and Alan Randolph (“Empowerment Takes More Than a Minute”)

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