Northwestern Mutual
The Myth of Control Great Leaders Dont Take it They Give it Away The Myth of Control Great Leaders Dont Take it They Give it Away
< Back to Insights & Ideas

The Myth of Control: Great Leaders Don’t Take It; They Give It Away

Sarah Schott •  September 2, 2015 | Business and Careers

Many young people just starting out in their careers expect that as they move up the ranks in their profession and establish themselves as leaders, they’ll gradually be able to take more and more control over their work. They’ll make decisions, control communications and direct the outcome of their team’s work—singlehandedly ensuring their team’s success. I’ve found that it doesn’t work that way.

Leaders don’t take control; they give it away. They have to.

Leaders have a broad range of responsibilities, which means they don’t have time to do everything themselves. Their job is to set the vision, motivate the team to reach that destination and then leave the execution to the team. It’s a bit risky, and it can be scary for some leaders. What if the work doesn’t get done perfectly? And yet when leaders give their power away, they are often surprised at the creativity and innovation that happens as a result.

When I talk to people who are struggling with the idea of relinquishing control, I share with them three things that have helped me delegate control successfully:  

1. Create a wide path. Establish a vision that’s practical and achievable, and then give people enough space to maneuver toward the destination in a way that works for them. They may end up taking a different route than the one you would have chosen, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean things will be chaotic; it just means you won’t be scripting every detail. Instead, your job as visionary is to motivate your team to achieve the goal. Make sure they know what’s in it for them—and for the company—to reach the destination successfully. When people understand the “why,” they’re more likely to buy in.

2. Move in and out of the weeds, as needed. Giving up control can’t be an all-or-nothing proposition. There will be times when people won’t know how to move to the next step along the path. When that happens, you’ll have to get into the weeds enough to be helpful; you can’t leave people floundering. On the other hand, if you’re too prescriptive, you run the risk of crushing innovation, enthusiasm and ideas. And lastly, if you’re an ultra-visionary leader, you may risk leaving too much distance between your vision and the path, making it difficult for your team to make the connection between the goals you’ve set and the work they do every day. To successfully give control away, you will have to balance your vision with operational direction.

3. Minimize risk. Giving up control means assuming some level of risk, so it’s important to be transparent about it and to minimize it when possible. I once asked a member of my team to prepare a presentation and deliver it to my boss. It was a stretch assignment for him, but it was important for his development, and he deserved a chance to be in the lead. To minimize the risk, however, I went to my boss in advance and said, “I want you to know this is new for him. Please know that if it’s not exactly what you want, we’ll work on it again; but I need for him to have the experience of leading this.” Minimizing the risk will help you get comfortable delegating responsibility, and in the process, you’ll be training and empowering the next generation of leaders.

There’s a very practical side to giving up control, too. As a leader, you don’t have time to control everything—unless you want to work 80 hours a week, and I don’t think that’s necessary or healthy. If you can reach a balance of establishing a vision and empowering people, you can be a leader and have a life outside work. Isn’t that the kind of control we all want? 

Rate This Article