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March 6, 2017 Community Connections

Why great leadership means relinquishing control

Taryn Stejskal

It's a time when many of us feel very much out of control. Life is going at a clip that feels unsustainable and unstoppable: 24/7 technology, a new president. My daily life equation never seems to add up. The number of hours in the day plus number of tasks to be accomplished equals a deficit of time.

How do we keep up? How do we stuff it all into a nice neat box with a tightly fitting lid? How do we control all of it?

When we experience a lack of control, the human tendency is to seek more control. This is a vicious cycle.

In their book, “Lead More, Control Less: 8 Advanced Leadership Skills that Overturn Convention,” Marvin Weisbord and Sandra Janoff offer a holistic and thoughtful approach to leadership that may, at first pass, defy expectation. Their recommendation: Invite leaders to “[wear] authority more lightly.”

Many people automatically correlate leadership with control. Weisbord and Janoff encourage us to reconsider this notion.

For many leaders, relinquishing control can feel particularly fraught. Back-to-back meetings along with hundreds of emails, fire drills, deliverables, and PowerPoint decks all require that we exert control. Or, so we think. Lead More, Control Less encourages leaders to place less control on people and exert more control over environmental conditions, the processes and structure in which the work gets done (for example, setting goals, addressing shifting priorities, connecting to the right people, etc.) In this way, teams are empowered through increased engagement, collaboration and collective wisdom.

Fear is the driver of control

The fallacy is: We think if we can exercise control, we will be safe. Paradoxically, the ability to let go, to surrender the outcome, sets us free (less control = greater freedom).

I remember the first time I led a team. I was afraid that if I didn't manage every detail, I would fail. I was also convinced that being a good leader meant controlling the behavior of the people that worked for me. I was hyper-focused on meeting all deadlines, without exception. Overtime, this wore my team down. What I know now is that being a good leader is about involving the team in the process and facilitating the structure that allows great people to do excellent work.

Had I known about Weisbord and Janoff's work as a young manager, I could have avoided some heartache. The authors invite leaders to focus on controlling structures, not people. Typically, leaders, some like me earlier in my career, have been taught the opposite — that is, to lord over the people, process, and outcomes.

In Weisbord's words, “We want to control the heck out of the conditions under which people interact with one another.”

By establishing a predictable structure and guardrails around which teams interact, there is a greater sense of psychological safety, and in the words of Peter Block, people are given responsibility for their own freedom, to be the authors of their own accountability.

Weisbord and Janoff tell us that by relinquishing control, rather than holding on more tightly, teams can be enabled through delegation and greater collaboration, leading to greater investment, productivity and innovation. As one of my team members pointed out earlier in my career, controlling the structure in which work gets done, rather than the team members themselves, is the difference between a carrot and a stick.

In short, strive to control people, processes, and outcomes less, and your team will thrive more. Begin by asking:

How will you surrender a kernel of control in your own life?

How will you let go of control in order to lead more effectively?

Taryn Stejskal serves on the board of directors for Leadership Greater Hartford. She is the director of leadership development and assessment at Cigna.

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