How Let Go of Control and Lead With Relationships

For the past year, we have felt so out of control. How could we have ever imagined that we’d lose so much say over the way that we live, work, socialize and build relationships?

It makes me wonder: What are you experiencing today in terms of what control means in your life? And for leaders in particular, what IS control? Did we ever really have it? Do you feel like you’re in control today?

These were among the questions I addressed in last week’s live show (here’s the replay).

Today’s topic is the fallacy of control. Let’s reframe how we think about control, so we can be leaders who inspire, empower and uplift others.

The Historical Way We Defined Control 

Some common statements people say in leadership are:

  • “you really have to get things under control,” and
  • “you have to make sure that you know what’s going on.”

Historically, this “control” in management meant understanding everything happening in operations, so if something goes out of whack you’ll be able to identify it and do something about it.

But over the past two decades technology has completely upended the “control” paradigm. With advances in technology, employees and customers have more agency. Today, employees and customers have platforms like Glassdoor and Facebook where they can provide feedback and honestly talk about their experiences with a company.

These platforms are just one reminder: You can’t control what people are writing about your brand or your leadership style. The only thing you can do is more good work. You can be a better leader so that the positive stuff comes to the forefront and negative stuff goes away.

The historical “control” paradigm is outdated. How can we let go of control and embrace the idea of command instead? What can we say and do to get results? How do we gain the confidence that the jobs and tasks will be done without actually being in “control” of them?

Think about it like the military: Is it better to order people into battle? Or do you actually want your people going into battle from a sense of duty, loyalty and passion for the mission? This is the key to understanding the fallacy of control. We need to think about control in a very different way.

The New Way of Defining Control 

When you think of a great leader, words like visionary, confident, or commanding might come to mind. But picture the actual leaders in your life: The people who if you were given the chance to work with again, you would jump at that opportunity. You probably don’t remember exactly what they did or said, but you do remember how they made you feel.

With true leaders, there’s no control going on. Instead, it’s a relationship. 

Relationships aren’t controlled, they are built. We know that relationships are never perfect. In the same way, leadership is never perfect either. So because true leadership is a relationship, it’s constantly changing and growing and morphing into something new and hopefully, better.

This is the new and true way to think about leadership: Not as control but as a relationship. 

When you’re thinking about your own life and leadership style, think about how you’re creating a relationship and a level of trust amongst your peers that evokes confidence to make decisions to achieve your objectives.

Four Ways to Create Deeper Relationships and Replace the Need for Control

  1. Be vulnerable. This is hard for many leaders, but admitting to not having all the answers and the fact that you make mistakes will deepen your relationship with your team. This results in three benefits: 1) It relieves you of the responsibility of having to know what the answer is all the time; 2) It enables you to bring in more people on your team, maybe even outside of the company, to help you find the right answer together, and; 3) It creates a strong sense of ownership of the problem amongst everybody.
  2. Move out of your comfort zone. The more people can see that you’re out of your comfort zone, the more they’ll be encouraged to get out of their comfort zones. If you come across as having all the answers, like you’re totally comfortable with constant change and turmoil, then people will feel like you’re perfect. However, when people can empathize with you feeling uncomfortable, then they don’t feel so alone and you won’t feel so alone. I’m doing this right now by building a new cohort-based course on disruptive leadership in public. I don’t have all of the answers of how the course will work and it’s far from perfect, but I decided to put myself out there because I’ll never “perfect” it in private. Learn more about the course here.
  3. Prepare yourself for imperfection along the way and admit when you’re wrong. And to be okay with it! The reality is that 99% of the decisions we make are reversible. So you can go forward with a decision, and if you realize it’s wrong, then you can always go back.
  4. Establish credibility. I was taught by Jim Kouzes, co-author of The Leadership Challenge, that leadership is about credibility: How you build it, how you use it. When you show up, and you put service and other people first, you establish credibility in those relationships.

I encourage you to think about the actions you can take to deepen your work relationships. Remember leadership is not about perfection and it is not about control.

Your Turn

I would love to hear from you:

How are you investing in the relationships that matter to your leadership? Are you nurturing them? Are you taking care of them? Are you developing them in this strong, deep sense, so that it’s growing stronger with every interaction?

Let me know in a comment. I’ve shared a recent example from my experience and I’d love to hear yours!