Which leadership trait do you use most: Control or Wisdom?

Oliver is absolutely in control of this situation, not at all interested in Grace's wisdom!

Oliver is absolutely in control of this situation; he’s not at all interested in Grace’s participation and wisdom (shown sulking in the background)!

Being an effective leader means having control and being in control. That’s what a lot of people think, anyhow. It’s certainly true that there are times when a leader has to take the helm and move things forward. It is especially critical for a leader to take control during difficult or contentious situations. Chaos and disaster ensue if a leader can’t make a decision when he needs to.

Control creates a leadership paradox though. Being too controlling creates a host of unintended issues. When employees are tightly managed by a controlling person, you might see some of the following as evidence: flow of honest information is prevented, innovation is stifled, employees do what is minimally expected of them because they don’t feel valued or trusted, apathy is pervasive. Sometimes these outcomes are subtle, sometimes not.

Good dog trainers understand the perils of too much control. Teaching a dog to do anything based on control alone (pushing only your own needs and not understanding where the dog is coming from) might get you compliance, but you certainly will not earn respect nor loyalty from your canine partner. And the smarter the dog, the more she will resist, thus creating other behavior issues like rebellion or even worse, aggression. Think about an intelligent employee who has offered creative ideas only to be ignored and dismissed; then the employee openly bad-mouths the management. If leadership had participated in a discussion about the merits and downsides of the ideas, the employee would have had an entirely different conduct.

I’m fascinated and impressed by leaders who are making dramatic, and effective, organizational changes by giving away their control. Not just in ordinary situations like the simple example above, but in extraordinary ways that test everyone’s courage and ability to trust. Can you imagine having employees set their own salaries? Well, you need to listen to the remarkable TEDTalk given by Brazilian CEO Ricardo Semler. This is a man who has spent the last 25 years running his company — and his life — with a focus on discovering wisdom and relinquishing control. He offers brilliant, but formidable, leadership advice: he advocates tapping into the wisdom of people, rather than controlling them.

Instead of coming to each situation with answers, he comes with questions. His curiosity serves as a way to think differently about the way we work, the way we teach, and the way we live. Here are just of few of the profound questions and thoughts posed and discussed by Semler that resonated with me:

“Why do we want to know what time you came to work, what time you left, etc.?”

“Why can’t people set their own salaries?”

“How can we be taking care of people? People are the only thing we have.”

“How we design, how do we organize, for more wisdom?”

“When you think and you say, now is the time to give back — well, if you’re giving back, you took too much.”

“We’ve all learned how to go on Sunday night to email and work from home. But very few of us have learned how to go to the movies on Monday afternoon. And if we’re looking for wisdom, we need to learn to do that as well.”

There were so many other thought-provoking ideas in this 20-minute presentation; I highly recommend viewing it. It will change the way you think about how you manage and lead.

Another great resource for those in New England on the topic of employee engagement is the upcoming annual conference hosted by New Hampshire Businesses for Social Responsibility. Held on May 4, 2015, it will be a day filled with cutting-edge ideas and inspirational networking. Hope to see you there!

Changing our workplaces to be filled with collective wisdom and limited control is certainly challenging.  But it is possible. There are some NH companies (you can meet them at the NHBSR conference) already putting their toe into the waters that Semler is advocating. Will you be one of them?

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  1. Michelle on April 16, 2015 at 9:52 am

    Thanks so much for mentioning the conference, Robin! We would love to have anyone interested in creating a workplace where employees feel valued and trusted, join us. I know that describes your readers!

    If you are interested, I would love to offer you, as one of Robin’s readers, a 40% discount. (You can enter the promo code “ENGAGE” to receive it.)

    • Robin on April 16, 2015 at 12:12 pm

      Michelle, what a kind and generous offer! Thank you. I hope some readers will take you up on it. Every NHBSR conference I’ve attended has been filled with good information and inspiring presentations. And this year it’s great to have a focus on employee engagement. Can’t wait to be there.

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