LA 062 – Are you A Controlling or Controlled Leader?



“As long as you do everything exactly the way I want it when I want it, you can do it any way you want whenever you want.”

The Head Chef told me on my first day in his kitchen. There was to be no ambiguity, no doubt that there was one way of doing things, and it was his way.

I wasn't there to express my creativity and brilliance. I was there to follow orders and comply with any and every demeaning request. With his first sentence, my new boss had stripped me of any personal control and all autonomy. Boy, did I feel motivated?!?

It was, however, the most efficient kitchen I had worked in.

We turned out surprisingly excellent food and you could, quite literally, eat off the floor. Rarely did anything go wrong, but should someone make a mistake, then Chef would be quick to bellow profanities and ensure that it was unlikely you would make that mistake again. Well, either that or you ran crying from the kitchen never to return.

Within a year, this chef was awarded his first Michelin Star. We celebrated by working harder than ever, scrubbing floors with more gusto and no-one ever dared to argue or question the Chef's absolute authority in all matters.

Success it seems is maintaining control.

Maintaining absolute control over every team member requires the gentle art of micromanaging everything. Every single little thing.
Maintaining absolute control over every team member requires the gentle art of micromanaging everything. Every single little thing.

Absolute control. And using power to get what you wanted. Taking all control from team members and empowering them only insofar as they could comply with precise instructions barked often in close proximity so that you could enjoy a shower at the same time.

Most new managers quickly learn a similar lesson. That exerting power over others gets them to do things. Keeping tight control enables you to maintain discipline and authority. And, in the short term at least, be successful.

And as the team grows, and new people join, the controlling manager soon finds that no-one else can be trusted to get things right. Other people just don't care enough to make everything perfect. So you micro-manage every tiny aspect of the operation. Stress levels increase and every team member fears making even a tiny mistake.

For the controlling leader, any time you turn away, someone will be undermining your authority.

Trying to steal some of your power over team members for themselves. You need to spot these interlopers early and either get them out or undermine any respect or authority they have gained. Belittling them in front of everyone can be very effective and if you can make them cry in public, so much the better.

Of course, you can trust no-one, even when you place family members in their “meritocratically” assigned roles (refusing to accept that nepotism has any place in your decisions). You rally your flunkeys to police on your behalf and alter the rules and policies to tip the balance firmly in your favour of maintaining absolute power, authority and control. Honesty becomes corrupt and whilst you demand transparency from others, you never practice it outside your inner circle.

The controlling leader lives in constant fear that someone else is trying to take away their power and control
The controlling leader lives in constant fear that someone else is trying to take away their power and control

Yet most controlling leaders often began their career with good intentions.

They became controlling leaders because it works. Well, it works in the beginning. When you are young (and perhaps foolish) your leadership approach is going to be about control and power. It seems to work. No scrub that, if you are big enough in some dimension, it works because others give in to your tantrums and belligerence and do your bidding.

Because this locus of control shows signs of being effective in the short term, it can quickly become the de-rigour standard by which the leader operates. And we know that power corrupts the soul and once you have tasted real power, its addictive properties mean that nothing else can get in the way of your fix.

But then there comes a point when your ego and pride get in the way of better decision making and micromanaging every single little tiny thing becomes utterly exhausting.

Controlling leaders lack diverse perspectives and disdain creative or challenging questions. Indeed, they shut them down with ridicule or resort to threats over personal liberty if pushed too far. The solution to any dissent or disagreement is to consolidate more power and greater control.

Where does that power come from? They have disempowered their team. And since autonomy is a top factor in driving motivation the controlling leader demotivates their team which causes resentment in those who remain and for some, the controlling leader's greatest fear a deep desire for payback through a leadership coup.

It rapidly dives down into a spiral of a power play of lies, deceit, dishonesty and surrounding yourself with a cadre of protective sycophants over whom you wield some power of significant embarrassment or, failing that, friends in law enforcement to do your bidding.

Controlling leaders often become zealously self-righteous and paranoid about their closest allies. Fearing a coup by those who dare show a tiny element of dissent. Team members deal with increasing levels of stress

Controlling leaders are driven by fear, power, ego and pride.

They care nothing for the people they trample on, claiming that the ends justify the means, no matter what. They become lonely and fade from history being quickly forgotten once they lose their grip on power.

Instead of being driven by fear, power, ego and pride, controlled leaders are calm, confident and empowering.

Remaining controlled in stressful situations is a sign of a mature leader. Understanding your emotions and choosing how and when to express those emotions in a positive way takes far more discipline and internal power than the controlling leader possesses.

The controlled leader establishes an inspiring vision for the team and models how to make it a reality. Empowering the team and trusting them to deliver effectively.

The controlled leader knows that their job is to serve their team enabling and guiding them to be their very best and doing whatever it takes to make that happen.

Information is shared transparently and team members given agency to service the team's goals.

The controlled leader proactively works to create and maintain a culture of honesty and integrity and true fairness. They don't speak in platitudes like weaker controlling leaders trying to manipulate thinking and emotions. rather they build the infrastructure that allows and encourages every single team member to blossom, to fail and create new solutions.

Being controlled is largely a deliberate cognitive and conscious choice in the brain that overrides the baser, instinctive response of the unconscious or lizard brain that thrives on emotional roller coaster rides of the ego, pride and fear prevalent in the controlling leaders drives.

So what do you do if you suspect that you are now, or may be becoming a controlling leader?

To rid yourself of controlling behaviours means doing the hardest thing you can do: letting go!
To rid yourself of controlling behaviours means doing the hardest thing you can do: letting go!

Sadly, truly controlling leaders reading this, will genuinely believe that they are under control and that they are great leaders. But then they don't ask for nor listen to honest feedback, rather shunning it in favour of the narrative that makes them the hero.

If you do realise that you are micromanaging, feel as though you are the only one who can be trusted and that your team need to be cajoled and bullied into action, you may be a controlling leader. Your job now is the most difficult one you have ever undertaken as a leader. Let go!

Loosen the reins a little, ease up on taking all tasks on yourself and dare to trust someone in your team. I have a terrifically popular podcast for you entitled “Let Go to Gain Control“. You will be astounded that you actually gain more real control (of yourself and others) by letting go.

What do you do when you report to a controlling leader?

This is a much more likely scenario. I suspect that few truly controlling leaders even began to listen let alone kept on listening until the end. No, you want to know how to deal with your controlling boss.

Well, most people quit in the end.

The longer a controlling leader remains in a position of power, the harder it is to get them to recognise it let alone change. Unless they face some life-changing moment that smacks them to sense. No, most controlling leaders stay on. In part, they find it very difficult to gain better employ elsewhere and it would be too daunting to build a new power base from nothing.

Does that mean that you should quit? I think that you should entertain the possibility that this is your best outcome and plan it effectively. Though it is entirely possible that your next boss will be as bad or worse. Remember, there are many more poor leaders than good ones.

You could, of course, become a flunkey.

Flattery and good ol' brown-nosing does a remarkable job here. You might think that this is too obvious and smarmy and they will see right through it. If they do, they still love to be flattered? even if it sounds a little forced and false. Just witness Trumps TV broadcast cabinet meeting for some excellent examples of insincere, smarmy flattery and watch him smile in the mistaken belief that a single word of it was genuine.

So you mean play politics? Yes. Learn to play the game by doing these three things: Get inside their head, look for the good and make them look good.

Get inside their head

Remember that controlling leaders likely began this favoured approach because it worked well early in their career. Indeed, for them, it is probably working very well now. That is, they perceive that this approach is effective and they are probably consistent in their approach.

Learn their patterns and find out how to predict them. One of my clients recently shared how her boss would pace around the office shortly before an explosive tirade. She could then spot this and choose whether to quickly leave the office on some errand or be mentally prepared to receive or witness the soon to come explosion.

She discovered many of the little “errors” that would precipitate such an event, and whilst these were insignificant and trivial to her mind, to her boss, they were the straw that broke the camels back.

Look for the good in them

Yes, I know this is tough, but it applies to every single person in your team and around you too. If there were just one thing that would make you happier and feel better, it would be being recognised or appreciated as an important person. As someone who matters.

The same is true for that controlling leader. Look for the good. They already know all the bad stuff, just as you know your own.

The chef I mentioned at the beginning was a fantastically good and creative cook. He was incredibly detailed oriented and artistic in the way he presented dishes. Sure he did not suffer even a parsley flake out of place, and whoa to you if you had even a smudge at your workstation. But his food tasted fantastic and looked supreme.

There is a positive in every negative behaviour. They usually have good intentions, it's just the execution and relationship management that needs a little work. Recognise their strengths and focus more attention on those than their weaknesses.

Make your boss look good

Your job is to make your leader look good to his or her superiors, to their clients and customers, colleagues and so on. Become a valuable resource to them. Recognise their strengths and support those, and when appropriate compensate for their weaknesses.

But don't do so in an attention seeking way. Keep it secret or the more paranoid controlling leader will suspect your motives and that you will take credit for their achievements, leave them or take their job.

Controlling leaders abound in organisations and even more so in civil service and government circles. Whilst being the bigger bully may be tempting, the wise new leader will learn how to manage their leader's darker side. As you get older and more experienced, it is your own dark side you need to manage and keep controlled for true success.

Check out this episode!

Professional Leadership Caddy

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