Leadership Myth #8 – Leaders Control Things.

In my experience, the term “command and control” gets a bad rap in many organizations. It is equated with a dictatorial, aggressive, “militaristic” approach to leadership. As a recently-transitioned Army officer newly arrived in a civilian job I was intrigued to discover that some people were surprised that my approach to leadership was far more participative and nuanced than what they expected given my background. The sentiment was expressed on one occasion that “we thought that you’d be a real control freak”.

Do leaders control things? There is a school of thought that says that real leaders don’t control things, that they “create a space for collaboration and discovery that allows answers and innovation to emerge from the collective wisdom of the group”. This school of thought sometimes goes as far as to assert that any intervention or direction by the leader is ipso facto a leadership failure.

Another school of thought asserts that a leader’s job is to control outcomes, that they are, in fact, being paid to deliver certain outcomes and that any failure to deliver those outcomes is evidence of the leader’s failure to control the situation appropriately.

In my opinion, both schools of thought can be true – what matters is the situational context. Groups of experts dealing with complex or “wicked” problems need to be given space and freedom to work creatively together if you want them to come up with new ideas. In this case a leader’s role is to adequately define the problem and the boundaries of the solution space and then get out of the way.

By contrast, crisis response is, in a sense, a “simple problem”: there should already be a known, practiced way of dealing with the issue. Speed and effective coordination, often in the face of fear and sensory overload, are the most important factors. In this case a leader’s role is clearly to take positive control of the situation and give clear and timely direction. This may involve behaviour that doesn’t always seem “nice”, however in this context the leader’s principle job is to “bring order out of chaos” which will often involve asserting a very detailed control of their subordinate’s actions.

So, in my opinion, this is not a myth. Leaders do control things. What they control and how they control it is dependant upon the situation. The art of leadership is understanding what is required of you in any given context.

How do you do this? Let’s talk about it!