Control is a word that is arguably the source of the greatest conflicts, whether you are a leader or a parent.
In the early years of parenting the issue of control is often reminiscent of a ‘phony war’ – one easily ‘won’ by the oversized and dominant parent who terminates any debate with the evergreen dictum ‘because I said so’. Let’s be honest, which one of us has not been the victim of such reasoning, or even used it ourselves when in a state of siege? We place it is right up there with the best of the ‘lines-I-will-never-say-as-a-parent’, only to hear ourselves utter it before the clock chimes thrice.
This phony war serves only as a warning, a prelude if you like, of what is to come during the adolescent years. Sadly it is a war most parents know to be inevitable, yet one for which most are ill prepared. But that is another subject altogether.
We could argue that control is as important a phase of early parenting as it is in the early stages of leadership. And in most cases we would be right. However, what is certain is that unless there is a willingness to relinquish control at an appropriate stage, the results of the real war can be a bloody shambles. Most wars are just that, and in all wars there are casualties on both sides.
For most leaders the notion of relinquishing control is a frightening prospect and one that often makes little sense to them. It seems counter-intuitive to all they have learnt along the rough road to power and position. To relinquish control, or even appear willing to do so, would seem to be a sign of weakness. Another reason leaders resist handing over control is simply because they have been doing whatever it is they do for so long that they just can’t adjust to being in the passenger seat. After all, surely their role is to be behind the wheel – the driver, if you like? And of course finding plausible arguments with which to prop up this logic are as plentiful as quills on a porcupine.
This is all well and good, unless you are the parent of a seventeen-year-old.
For parents the issue of control is no more forcibly experienced than when the growing, grunting, noise-generating Whatever arrives home triumphantly waving something that some idiot has issued and which now entitles him (or her . . . in which case ignore the earlier adjectives) to legally reduce you to a gibbering wreck. Of course I am referring to their learner’s licence. Life will never be the same from this point and your control over the car keys begins to vaporise like snow in the Sahara. This triumph of the young would have been preceded by a rare phenomenon – a period of self-induced, self-motivated study in order to obtain the licence.
As I experienced the threat to my once-firm grip on my car – the fact that it was my new dream car did not make it easier – there were some interesting lessons inviting learning. For one, I was confronted by my own emotions (predominantly that of ‘unwillingness’) about relinquishing control. Once the pure and entirely understandable instinct for survival diminished in direct proportion to the increasing skill levels of the learner driver, there were often no justifiable reasons for me to not surrender the wheel, yet often I failed to do so. Meeting the perpetual question, ‘Can I drive, dad?’ with a hasty, non-discernible mumble (proof that some adolescent tendencies have a long shelf-life) which constituted a clear ‘No’. Fact is, I wanted to remain in control – determine the route, decide the speed, dictate the events, be the leader.
But the real lesson learnt from this experience was one that had a certain serendipitous quality about it. I discovered that when the learner is entrusted with the opportunity to get behind the wheel, something amazing happens. The learner somehow morphs into the ‘leader’. Suddenly, this sullen creature whose two main responses from the passenger side of life have traditionally been a grunt and a whatever begins to initiate conversation in a manner to which I am quite unaccustomed.
‘How was your day, dad?’
‘So what do you think about . . .?’ and so on.
I came to realise that this transformation somehow (and the word ‘mysteriously’ would not be out of place here) seemed to flow from the sense of control that came from being in charge, from being behind the wheel. It was almost as if something more was expected of the one sitting in that position.
I guess this behind-the-wheel transformation should come as no surprise. We have seen it all before in the playgrounds of yesteryear when kids who became King of the Castle were filled with a newfound confidence that allowed them to call others twice their size Dirty Rascals.
The point for leaders is that others may well surprise you when given the opportunity to get behind the wheel. Smart leaders know this and they are inclined to create frequent opportunities in order to make drivers out of learners.
Of course, a white-knuckle SLOW DOWN scream is still appropriate every now and then!
There is a Hebrew proverb that says: ‘Do not confine your children to your own learning, for they were born in another time.’
For innovation to flourish companies need to embrace diversity; and for diversity to thrive, leaders and managers have to learn to relinquish control. I believe this is where the next major shift will occur in leadership as we currently know it. It is a fault-line ready to erupt, heaping havoc on traditional forms of leadership and structures. Giving up control will mean many things for the leader, not least of which is the possibility that they will have to turn over the company to someone who knows less. To allow self-organisation to take place, control has to be surrendered. We delude ourselves if we think that things such as innovation, process and self-organisation can be managed or controlled, yet all these elements are vital to our company DNA if they are to survive the future. In TomorrowToday.biz we have begun using the term ‘unmanagement’ more and more in reference to these elements. Unlearning much of what we have been taught about leadership will be necessary in order to adapt to the postmodern world in which we live and do business.
Giving up control provides the air for authentic values to grow within an organisation. If values are to be owned and lived by everybody, they need to be grown from the ground up.
So next time you asked for the keys to your car…pause a while and think about the challenge of leaders giving-up control!