skip to Main Content

Leadership Control? A CEO’s ‘Strangest Little Secret’

In business, control is often synonymously used with leadership and is often considered a key leadership trait.

Leadership Control vs. Technical Control – Of course, there is a level of control necessary in the business, for example in accounting, in production, by the governance board, through law, etc. However, this can be considered a technical approach to control.

How strange it may sound at first, empirically it seems that lessening control over people has a substantial and positive influence on a CEO’s relationship with the people and on the business results.

From my own experience and having been involved in countless domestic and international ‘control type’ scenarios, I have seen these scenarios often result in business damage and image loss. I have concluded a long time ago that situation control through people control is unneeded, not asked for in the business and does not belong in people’s arsenal of leadership tools to live a successful life.

For reference purposes, I refer to a definition of control, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: “To exercise authoritative or dominating influence over; to hold in restraint; to regulate, to influence, to master, to restrain.”

What do you control?

  • What and when you put something in your mouth (although some people will probably dispute this to be true)
  • When you decide to physically move and for example get up right now
  • When you decide to make a personal change – right here, right now; a change in your thinking, ultimately leading to a change in your behavior

What do you not control?

  • Feelings and actions of other people
  • The past – anything that has already happened
  • The future – anything that has not yet happened
  • Most ongoing processes in your own body

Reviewing the above, as a person, as a leader, you probably must admit, there’s very little you can consciously control. It is critical for you as a leader of an organization, to make a clear distinction between what you can and what you cannot control.

What is ‘acceptable’ control, translated into leadership?

  • To Observe. To see what actually happened.
  • To Compare. To examine what did happen in the context of what was supposed to happen.
  • To Decide. If the comparison shows that objectives were not met, determine what needs changing, and make changes to assure success next time.
  • To Support. Actively support fixing the issue, not spreading the blame.

By focusing on what can be controlled and accepting the rest as it is and for what it is, you create a basis for trust and openness in the environment. However, as often is the case, CEO’s mistakenly conclude “what it is” and start creating a framework around this misconception, consequently starting to think, act and implement inappropriate measures. You need to avoid this by verifying the so called reality through communication with a balanced inquiry and advocacy and to let your plans and the reasons for it be discussed openly and without risk for people.

Acceptance is a key leadership trait. The more you do as a leader from an acceptance point of view, the greater the harmony and the better the output for you. This is because when you do this, you can seemingly effortlessly and successfully maneuver through the challenging internal and external forces. Your leadership behavior is dictated by vision, courage and determination, to succeed with your people, not ‘over your people’. So in a sense, the less you control your team members, the higher the productivity and the more successful the outcome. This of course needs careful explanation, monitoring, coaching and starts with the basic requirement to hire the right people (permanent full-time, part-time, contractors, freelancers, any one).

The key to optimize leadership success in business and life is to master controlling what is controllable and letting go of everything outside of your control. This can be done through building bridges and creating personal collaborative influence with the people you meet with.

As a senior leader, for you to be successful, do you need to have control over other people? I don’t think so.

In my consulting work I share the results driven attitude of CEOs and other senior leaders, yet I am often asked to assist in situations, where the key to success often lies in distinguishing a pure passion for results, from a focus on controlling people. Obviously discussing control in this way, is not easy. Most CEO’s readily admit that they are supposed to, perhaps want to be and feel better when they are in ‘direct control’ over other people.

I suggest you may want to reflect upon this a little further and start to consider building collaborative influence as part of your communication strategy. Review how some of the following observations may apply to you and how they perhaps can lead to a change in your thinking. Potentially and only if you want, even a change in your behavior. There is no loss in this, only potential gain;

Ten ways to recognize and expand your influence:

  1. Influence is focused and exercised with an ethical plan and goals in mind – control originates out of fear and leads to biased thinking
  2. Influence fuels matrix (leadership) behavior and builds relationships for you – control is anti-matrix (leadership) behavior and destroys your existing relationships and prevents building new one’s
  3. Focusing on influence implies it will increase for you (universal law of magnification) – your focus on control leads to potential uncontrollable situations every where in the organization (usually leading to newspaper front page ethical debacles)
  4. Influence is carried out in a business like fashion – control is the offspring of desperation and develops in all kinds of ‘forms and behavior packages’
  5. Influence creates options and various possibilities – control blocks your and your team’s creativity and creation
  6. Influence makes you part of the outcome and result – control puts you outside the team, away from a possible solution
  7. Influence puts future working capital in your ‘personal’ bank account – control creates hyper inflation, leading to personal and organizational bankruptcy
  8. Influencing (the letting go of control) equals power, it frees up your energy, energy you can use to plan strategically, to set goals, to interact with employees and customers, to develop steps to influence – any energy expensed to control people is wasteful spending and equals loss
  9. Influence personally satisfies, it acknowledges personal growth – control aims at perfection, it stifles your growth and creates a lack of personal fulfillment leading to dissatisfaction, frustration and possible disease.
  10. Influence creates and expands your reliability and commitment – control destroys with personal consequences and leads to low confidence levels and a bad reputation

The leader is well advised to provide a compelling vision and ask how it might be implemented rather than stating “how”. Collaboratively influencing other people can clearly affect your success. Today’s commonly used matrix structures within the life sciences and other industries, are dominated by cross-line reporting and by influence without authority aiming at success through influence. Developing collaborative influence is not optional for you as a leader – it is a key leadership requirement.


As a CEO, it is clearly not about people control and this is more than semantics. You gain incremental success through collaborative influence and lessening your thoughts about, your desire for and acting in a manner to control other people. Do no longer fall into the trap of overemphasizing control, as opposed to fostering innovation and creativity, to meet your corporate goals.

Next time, when you are just about to go into control mode, switch gears choose differently and remember that you cannot really control the feelings and actions of other people, no matter how hard you try. Ask support where necessary and make every effort to expand your collaborative influencing skills. Feel yourself already loosening up about the next leadership situation for you to solve.

It is often said that the truly successful leaders are collaborative, influential, open minded, tolerant, challenging the status quo, output oriented and specifically allow team members to develop and become creative by seeking multiple solutions to business’ challenges. So can you!

Image Credit:

This article was originally published in Leadership Matters on 20 November, 2009

Johan Reinhoudt

Ik ben oprichter en directeur van Top-Coach, Master Executive Coach, ervaren internationaal visionair leider en ervaren expat met jarenlange achtergrond in de gezondheidszorg en life-sciences industrie. Ik heb een uitgebreide professionele ervaring als executive leider van wereldwijde hoogproductieve teams/organisaties en ook als turn-around en managementconsultant in het transformeren van organisaties. Ik ben het best bekend door mijn contextuele executive coaching en het creëren van leiderschap met hoge persoonlijke prestaties, effectieve teams en organisaties.

Ik woon momenteel in de regio Utrecht en werk in een persoonlijk gesprek met executives en met executive teams in de Nederlandse en Engelse taal, in organisaties door geheel Nederland en ook internationaal.

Als executive coach en ervaren luisteraar, snelle denker en vanuit mijn passie voor mensen, leiderschap en gezonde bedrijfsvoering, begeleid ik executives, executive expats en repatratiates “in-executive context” naar een hoger prestatieniveau en een gezonde gewenste werksituatie, door gebruik te maken van het door mij speciaal voor executives ontwikkelde True Change™ Executive Coaching – een persoonlijk ontwikkelingstraject en vijf-stappenplan.

Tel. 030-200 6761

I am the founder and CEO of Top-Coach, Master Executive Coach, experienced international visionary leader and experienced expat with years of background in the healthcare and life sciences industry. I also have extensive professional experience as an executive leader of global high-productive teams/organisations and as a turnaround and management consultant in the transformation of organisations. I am best known for my contextual executive coaching and to creating leadership with high personal performance, effective teams and organizations.

I currently live in the Utrecht region and work with executives and executive teams through in-person consultations in Dutch or English, in organizations throughout the Netherlands and also internationally.

As an executive coach and experienced listener, fast thinker and based on my passion for people, leadership and healthy business, I guide executives, executive expats and repatriates "in-executive context" to a higher level of performance and a healthy, desired work situation, by using my proprietary True Change™ Executive Coaching – a personal development trajectory and five-step program.

Tel. (+31) (0)30-200 6761

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: