Saturday 19 November 2011

The higher you go as a leader, the less you can control

This is about what changes as we go up the leadership ladder in organisations.

Everyone faces the challenge of personal leadership. We are all challenged to find our true purpose on this earth and then channel more and more of our energy into manifesting our particular gifts to our world.

Some people become leaders of teams. The first level is usually leading doers, the operational people who are probably doing what you recently excelled at, and now you have to make the huge shift to achieve results through others. There are a plethora of situational leadership styles, but the bottom line for most of us is that as a team leader, I value my people and my will prevails. Whether exercised in a more directive way or a in a more nurturing way, team leaders have a lot of control and are valued in organisations for exactly that: getting the job done well.

A few people take on senior leadership of large organisations. Some try to hold onto the control they had when leading teams or in middle management: they become the control freaks who feed our stereotypes of ogrish corporate and government bosses. Others – the most successful leaders in my view – realise that the higher up in an organisation you go, the less you can control.

As a senior leader, your job is to lead leaders. This is a fundamentally different task to leading doers.

The people you want in your top team in a large organisation are not the kind who like being bossed around and controlled. They are inspiring, they are creative, they have their own particular talents and vulnerabilities, their energies are precious. Your task is to inspire and guide them. Enough that they align their energies and those of the large teams they in turn are leading with your overall organisational direction.

As the head honcho, you effectively have a small and precious amount of control available, and you need to use it like the gold it is. My rule of thumb is that the top leader can control two or three major strategic initiatives, and make two or three major rules. Even better if you can condense these down to one of each! For the rest, leave it up to your team. Let them set their own strategic goals. Let them make the rules that suit their strategic vision. If they can’t or won’t do that, then they probably aren’t the right people for your top team, or you are cramping their style by bringing too many of your own initiatives and rules to the system.

So if you want to be a senior leader, start refining your understanding of what really matters. You have probably already worked out that it is more about outcomes than inputs. Have you realised how much of your time needs to be focused on ensuring your team have the three essentials? Resources, direction and space to act.

If you already are a senior leader, how much of your time is spent nurturing the energies of your top team? How well tuned is your gut to what unlocks the full flow of their energies? Have you done the excruciating work of reducing what you control to the bare minimum, that gives this huge organism both room to exercise its powerful energies, and enough direction to focus these energies in a good way?

Welcome to the exhilaration of guiding and trusting your people with true empowerment.


  1. Thanks for an interesting piece, Mish. It is good to see you sharing your own leadership experience on this blog.

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