Leaders who think they can control everything are setting themselves up for disappointment

Posted by Rick DeMarco on 2 July 2015

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I admit it. I’m a control freak. Sitting on my desk is a plaque with a constant reminder of the need to overcome that weakness… a saying by Reinhold Niebuhr, “Grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference”.

As we work with clients every day on creating cultures of highly engaged employees who share a common vision, it becomes very clear how a leader who is a control freak can create disengagement rather than engagement, and alienation rather than inspiration. Engagement is about inviting people to actively participate in making the common vision and strategy a reality, and that can’t happen if a leader tries to control, rather than inspire those he/she leads. Furthermore, it’s hard for employees to rally beside a leader who is under the illusion that he/she can control all circumstances. The fact is that things happen that are totally outside of our control and an inspiring leader deals with that. So let’s unpack Reinhold’s timeless advice.  

1. Serenity to accept the things we cannot change

Things happen that are outside of our control. Competitors make decisions and take actions that they don’t clear with us first. People make decisions that are not aligned with our needs and desires or those of the organization. The economy fluctuates. Natural disasters happen. Effective leaders accept that things happen outside of their control, but take action to adjust and adapt strategies and tactics accordingly. Let me be clear about that statement. I’m not suggesting that leaders should just accept the things they can’t change and let the chips fall where they may. I’m suggesting that we must respond to these uncertainties with actions focused on the things we CAN control or manage.  It’s hard to inspire and engage others when a leader lives under the illusion that he/she is in total control of people and circumstances. It becomes an authenticity and credibility issue and people follow those they trust.

2. Courage to change the things we can

Effective leaders have the courage to get out of their own personal comfort zone, and at times the comfort zone of the organization itself, and make necessary changes to achieve a vision and strategy. If a leader wants to create a culture of invested and engaged employees who proactively look for better ways to serve the customer and achieve the company goals, he/she needs to lead by example.  And that means having the courage to change when change is necessary. Leadership is not a popularity contest.  It often requires decisions that challenge the status quo

3. Wisdom to know the difference

Effective leaders don’t waste time trying to change things they can’t, but rather expend their energy changing things they can. When a leader thinks they can control everything, they set themselves up for disappointment. On the other hand, when that leader thinks he/she controls nothing, it is easy to become a victim. In this case, nothing is his/her fault and there is no culture of accountability or responsibility. Effective leaders have the wisdom to know what they can and what they can’t change, and then put their energy into changing the things they can that are necessary to achieve a vision and goals. This wisdom and resulting action inspires and engages others to join the change movement.

A control freak will face a difficult, if not impossible task trying to create a culture of collaboration and engagement. That culture requires an environment of trust, openness, candor, creativity, and a willingness to share the best ideas from everyone on the team. And that only happens when the leader stops trying to control people and situations and focuses more on inspiring them. Keep Reinhold Niebuhr’s sound advice in front of you as you lead by example and drive a culture of engagement and inspiration: Have the Serenity to accept the things you cannot change, the Courage to change the things you can, and the Wisdom to know the difference. 

If you want to learn more about how effective leadership drives the success of creating an engaged and inspired workforce, visit our website at www.inwardconsulting.com and register for our weekly blogs on leadership and employee engagement.