Monday 28 November 2011

Leaders balancing freedom and control

Leadership is not all about control. Nor is it all about democracy.

Leaders are called upon in equal measure to hold the space for others in the group, and to give direction to the group. In other words, leaders both facilitate the emergence of leadership in their teams, and give guidance and direction to their teams. Put more bluntly, leaders hold empowerment in one hand and control in the other.

Most of us are better at one or other of these, and I for one will own up to powerful desires for both: I do like to control the world around me and I passionately desire the empowerment of all. It feels quite normal to move between one and the other, yet easy to second-guess oneself about what is appropriate at any one time.

I observe many leaders who show strong preferences either for control at all costs or for democracy and empowerment at all costs. Yet holding the paradoxical balance between empowerment and control embodies what I believe is the most powerful form of transformational leadership.

Giving direction to the group is the kind of leadership we are most familiar with. Many people are attracted to the open and effective wielding of power – “making things happen.” Who hasn’t complained about potholes or non-working traffic lights “why doesn’t the council just get the job done?” Yet I find a lot of leaders and potential leaders shy away from stepping into their capacity to give direction. Most of us fear the abuse of power – and rightly so. Yet direction is essential in all organisations.

I find a lot of leaders think this is by definition “the corporate way,” yet many of the most effective leaders know they must ration the amount of control they exert for the good of the organisation. Hurt, anger and vitriol are quick to explode when the power and control exerted by a leader starts to feel like abuse.

Great leaders are those who know when to give direction, and when to let direction emerge.

Holding the space for others is about allowing the energy of the team to emerge. Great space-holding leaders are often distinguished by the way their team members shine. Every time you ask your team “what needs to happen here?” you are holding space for their leadership to emerge. Every time you ask a subordinate “what is your objective?” you are inviting him or her to set some direction. In times like this, you are leading in a way that makes space for leaders to emerge. It’s less obtrusive and has been out of favour in the era of messianic CEOs with nicknames like “chainsaw Al”. Yet it is the key to bringing balance with that harder-driving leadership. It’s the key to leading diverse teams.

I’m grateful to Michael Boyle who taught this framework to me as “form and void” in the context of a leadership programme of The Mankind Project, and also Olivier Mythodrama who brought these concepts to my company, Praxis Computing, in 2008. I acknowledge the inspiration from both these sources; I’m responsible for the interpretation above.


  1. This is such important stuff! And yet apparently incredibly difficult to pull off. It's very clear that many of the world's political leaders have not managed to find this balance at all - watching Obama's negotiations with Republicans, and the campaign of the Republican contenders for the presidency, shows examples of both extremes: too much effort to build consensus, and too much populist control-oriented rhetoric.

  2. Interesting the ideas about giving space to others to lead. Holding back is difficult for many leaders so they will need to see a payback. So that there is more benefit to giving this space rather than just telling people what to do. I hope you will develop some more ideas for leaders in this blog.

  3. Coaching certainly has no lock on that.

    self development


You are welcome to comment on this blog - please contribute to the discussion.

Please type your comments in the box below. You will be required to log in to comment. This is because we have had spam problems.

Please note that in order to comment on this blog, you are required to accept our Blog Comments Policy