Leading… Instead of Controlling


“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, not so good when people obey and acclaim him, worse when they despise him. But of a good leader who talks little when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

– Lao Tzu – Chinese Philosopher 600 – 531 B.C.


This ancient Chinese philosopher caught a unique, productive, but seldom practiced vision of leadership. It is no secret to anyone who runs a company (or even a department) that true success cannot be obtained by one individual. Iconic athletes like Tom Brady, LeBron James, and Derek Jeter, as talented as they are, cannot win championships or satisfy their fans unless every other team member does his job.  Similarly, we must understand that it requires a team of people to satisfy today’s demanding customers. Managers by the nature of their personality many times get much of their validation by carrying the flag, and taking the credit. After all, this is what you worked so hard for; a chance to call the shots, grab the prize and celebrate the victory. In reality however, if we are interested in lasting success we have to embrace the ironic dichotomy that the most effective long term leadership styles are built on the foundation of deference.

Putting team over self is the key to turning the duplication of your effort, into multiplication. Cultivating a team vision can allow you to lead and direct so naturally, that the crew operates the same way when you are in the room as they do when you’re gone. Building this type of team requires you to make the lines of jurisdiction clear, and ensure that the mission and goal of the department is well communicated. The work load also needs to be evenly distributed, and the individual team members must understand their essential role in achieving these measurable, targeted goals. When these conditions are in place, you will have an environment conducive to building a team that can generate their own destiny.

This is the “next level” that business mavens always talk about.  I’ve always maintained that nobody really knows what “the next level” really is.  It’s one of those nebulous “goal without a goal” platitudes that CEO’s use when they are too afraid to make a commitment to a defined objective.

I have however, rethought my original position. My new perspective is that the “next level” is less about individual accomplishments, and more about motivations, and process. Taking your business to the “next level” is actually leading your department toward self-reliance. It’s like the moment your father let go of the bike for the first time. As the sound of his footsteps disappeared in the distance, you realized….WOW….I can do this myself! If we can get our team members to have that signature moment in their day to day work experience, how much better will the results be?

This can be a dangerous and frustrating moment for many leaders, who seeing their self-motivated team operate independently, fear that they will be somehow outshined, or marginalized by their subordinates. Feeling this fear, many managers may seek to wrest back control, and in so doing stomp on the carefully kindled flame that took so long to create.

This is where managers confuse CONTROL with LEADERSHIP. The fact is, when you have done your job as a leader, the final step in the process is to give control AWAY.  This is something that is done over a period of time, and only after repeated evidence is demonstrated that the people to whom you are releasing control are fully committed to achieving the departmental objectives. They should have already shown their ability to build one success on another because they find satisfaction and fulfillment in being part of a team that allows for innovation and individual achievement.   Every team usually has a least one or two individuals with this capacity. If you can find them, and nurture this process, you will have taken the first step in building this self-actuating “next level” style of success in your department.

Although releasing control to your most worthy lieutenants can get your team to “the next level”, it is an intermediate step to what I consider the TOP level in a successful operation.

My brother was an army officer in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He had risen through the ranks and ended up being the Captain of the Quartermaster at Ft. Hood in Texas. His military experience many times included watching a change of command within the units where he was stationed. He told me about how he would routinely see a new commander come into a unit with a truckload of enthusiasm, and start immediately instituting drastic changes in order to “remake” the unit. These commanders thought it necessary to brand the unit with their own personal style. They were convinced that the personal trademark they stamped onto the unit would build a cohesive vision and identity in the organization, and that the people would be motivated and energized by the change.

Time and again, my brother watched these new leaders struggle to get results. They failed to understand that in order to be successful, your efforts and actions cannot be about YOU, but instead have to be centered on the TEAM. Leaders cannot afford the luxury of always “being right”, having everything done “their way”, or carving out pre-determined notches for each success. He told me, “Military leaders are often stereotyped as those who bark orders and enforce compliance. The greatest leaders however speak little, listen much, and serve with their hands and feet”.

So, moving to the top level requires a leader not only to release control to selected members of the team but then to aid and support everyone in the process; in our case, that would be the customers we service,  the subordinate leaders to whom we have given control, and the staff actually carrying out the work.

Customer needs and the business environment are always changing. You CAN make it about you, but in the end you may end up with an organization that runs efficiently, but serves no one. Staff and subordinate leaders that are given latitude (within the organizational vision and guiding principles of the company) will gain success in ways that work for THEM. If they are empowered to listen to the customer, and then assertively take action, they will find new and highly creative ways to satisfy clients and increase productivity.   In the end, this is what the “work” of leadership really is: looking beyond the current ways of doing things, and focusing on where the customer is going, then making decisions and supporting an environment that leads the team in that direction.

Do you want to be a good leader? Learn to serve. There are times when you must lead from the front and be a visible example. Day to day however, success is not about leading from the front or attempting to steer from the rear. Successful leadership is about serving in the CENTER, from “within”. This is where action and satisfaction meet. It makes the work, worth doing.

Oh how I wish we all could get to that top level.  It takes a lot of patience, trust, and determined work, and it’s a process, not a single moment in time. It starts with releasing control, and continues with servant leadership. Keep working at it. It’s a long road, but most teams have at least a core group of talented performers who can make the first steps.

One thought on “Leading… Instead of Controlling

  1. Teddy Ghaston says:

    Very true Dave.
    There is never one true leader. Accomplishments are achieved by team work.
    Providing the tools and the opportunity for success.

Leave a Reply

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