Give Up Control to Get Control

When I teach leadership programs, inevitably the topic of control comes up. In general, the leaders in the room want more of it, and that’s often why they seek higher positions in their company. When this conversation comes up, I prepare myself, because we are about to start confronting some beliefs. Why prepare myself? Have you ever heard the term “Don’t shoot the messenger?” Confronting beliefs is like walking through a minefield.

Yet it’s in confronting our beliefs and assumptions that we can find freedom on the other side.

There are many, many beliefs about leadership that are downright false – and it’s one of the reasons that learning to be a good leader is so difficult. Here are a few:

  • “If I’m the boss, it’s my job to have the answers and know what to do.”
  • “If I were in charge, I would be able to get more done than those [fill in the blank with whatever term you use to describe people you don’t agree with.] are getting done.”
  • “If I ask for help, it means I am weak.”
  • “If I disagree with my boss, I will either get fired or demoted.”
  • “If I show vulnerability, they will eat me alive.” 
  • “My main job is to maximize financial returns.”
  • “If I’m the boss, I will have more control.”

Many, many of these beliefs live outside of our conscious awareness, so they operate in the background, like the apps draining the battery on your smartphone. These beliefs also operate like filters, focusing our attention on what we think we know, and causing us to miss the countervailing data that’s right in front of our eyes.

Before I dive in on how to refine those beliefs (it’s harder than it looks), let’s look at the case of Southwest Airlines just recently.

Over this past holiday season, Southwest Airlines cancelled thousands of flights and stranded thousands more customers. The airline that once had a reputation of being the MOST customer friendly suddenly became the most incompetent. Why? In a letter dated December 31, Captain Tom Nekouei, SWAPA 2nd Vice President argues his case that the CEO Gary Kelly and other leadership of Southwest Airlines had been ignoring their employees for years. They had warned that the systems were out of date; however, according to his letter, Capatin Nekouei says that the senior leadership team was more focused on shareholder returns. My guess is that they leadership team thought they knew better and dismissed the warnings because of a faulty belief. They believed they knew better than the ones on the front lines doing the work. Imagine how differently things would have gone if the leaders at Southwest had been willing to listen to their employees.

In his book Hardwiring Excellence, Quint Studer tells a story of walking through the halls of a hospital he had recently joined. In one area, he found multiple coffee pots standing on the burners with hot water instead of the usual gallons of coffee. When he asked if there were a lot of tea drinkers on the floor, he got eye rolls in return. He discovered something the nurses in the unit had known for at least 13 years. The hot water heater was broken, and they had not been able to get the leaders at the top to prioritize repairs, so the affected employees developed a work around. This experience resonated so deeply with Studer that he made rounding (the practice of walking the halls and asking lots of questions) a requirement for the leaders in his hospital. In other words, he believed the ones doing the work knew what to do. And he got the right people in engineering involved to create a better hot water solution.

Ricardo Semler took action that seemed completely counterintuitive, yet it resulted in both better financial results and higher levels of trust and morale. When he took over his father’s Brazilian company Semco, he recognized that they had a significant morale problem, and systemic lack of trust. He also noticed that they spent lots of time and money on auditing employee expense reports. The lack of trust that was draining morale was built into the rules of the organization. He chose a different strategy. Rather than constantly check up on them, he told his employees to tell the company how much they owed for expenses and they would pay them. If they caught someone cheating, they would fire them. Then he reassigned the entire expense report department to different roles. He also implemented many different changes that involved the employees in making decisions on everything from work schedules to cost management. Over 20 years, revenue grew from $4 Million to $212 Million. Letting his people have a huge say in how to run the organization lifted everyone up. He tells these and many more stories in his book The Seven Day Weekend.

One of the most confusing topics I unpack in my book Dancing the Tightrope is the practice “give up control to get control.” The first day I went into the round pen with Bruce Anderson, I was looking for the answers that would give me more control. When he said “Your job is to hold the picture. Let the horse tell you what to do, when to do, how to do. Be the conduit,” I thought he must be insane. Surely it was my job to know how to do this. After all, that’s what I had been taught my whole life. Bruce’s whole point was that the process of our upbringing, where our beliefs start to calcify, takes us away from our nature. Our well-intentioned attempts at controlling the situation simply make things worse. If a horse is willing to lend his four feet to us to take us somewhere, does it not make more sense for him to offer it willingly? If our employees are helping us grow a business to serve our customers, does it not make more sense for them to offer it willingly? Working together like this is more like riding a wave – or dancing on a tightrope. It’s a constant game of give and take, where we listen to each other, make course corrections, and move together in harmony.

I have to admit that early in my leadership career, I fell prey to the faulty beliefs listed at the beginning of this article. At every promotion, I assumed my new level of responsibility magically gave me more knowledge and thus more control. But the control was an illusion, and a frustrating one at that. I didn’t know these beliefs were changeable; I thought they were the truth. With the benefit of good coaches (and my colleagues) who were willing to poke and prod my deep assumptions, I eventually came to see the insanity of believing that I was supposed to have all the answers. But just because I can see it doesn’t mean I’ve instantly fixed anything. (I still consider myself a recovering control freak.)

So how do we reverse the beliefs that are so embedded as to be invisible? First, we have to realize that discomfort sometimes is pointing to a faulty assumption. We need to check it out. Second, we can invite those around us to poke and prod. It’s not comfortable. In fact, it’s the opposite. Third, we can gather our courage to take a hard look at what isn’t working. What has helped me most is realizing that the discomfort is a false hell. Avoiding discomfort is like pretending I don’t have a splinter in my finger, wishing the pain away as it nags in the background. If I can just bear the temporary pain of removing the splinter, I will feel so much better on the other side. I may still have discomfort, but it’s more like the discomfort that comes from a good workout, where I can feel my muscles growing stronger through the soreness.

One of my favorite ways to uncover the beliefs I hold that are like splinters in my finger is “Getting Clarity.” It’s one of the tools in the Eight week series I mentioned a few weeks ago. You can find it here. If you have a “splinter” that’s bugging you, I highly suggest you work through this tool. If you are anything like me, you will need some guidance on the third or fourth question. Almost everyone does, because we don’t usually ask ourselves these questions. That’s ok. All you have to do is hit reply to this email and we’ll set up a call. It’s worth the effort, I promise!

You might wonder what I recommend for those leaders who ask me to coach them in ways to gain more control. First, I remind them that the higher in the organization they go, the more they must let go of control. At this point, we begin to work on influence. Second, I suggest that if they still feel the need to have more control, they will be much happier in jobs lower in the organization.

Have you ever stopped to consider your beliefs about leadership? Which assumptions and beliefs in the list above resonate with you? What invisible assumptions are you making? How might you get more clarity on the beliefs and assumptions that are driving you?

Share in the comments on the blog.