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5 Words of Caution to Control Freaks

5 Words of Caution to Control Freaks
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
It’s amazing to me how many leaders I know that tell me they struggle with control. I come by the subject honestly because I, too, am a recovering control freak. Most people have a love-hate relationship with control. Control freaks love it when they’re in control. But others hate working for them. People who like control seem to have a natural ability to get into leadership positions. Or sometimes they just create one. So can you recover from being a control freak? Is there a way out? The answer to both questions, fortunately, is yes. And it helps to see what’s really at stake. The first step is, predictably, admitting you have a problem. For years, I resisted the control freak label. Maybe that’s what you’re doing. You’re not a control freak. You’re just:

1. Passionate

2. Detail oriented

(Of course, only very selectively about the things for which you have the most passion)

3. Good at what you do

(OK, you don’t say that one out loud…but control freaks, you know what happens when you delegate to other people who just can’t get the job done, right?) Control freaks get things done. In fact, maybe you use your success to justify your addiction to control. In the early years of my leadership before I realized I had an issue, our church grew explosively. So you would think: Well, God blesses control freaks, so just leave me alone. And yes, of course He loves them. But apparently, Jesus didn’t model control freakishness very well for those of us who want to follow in His footsteps. He only ministered for three years, building into some questionable characters he called disciples. He poured His life into them and then left the planet and put them in charge. A number of years ago I finally admitted I have a problem (only after about 1,282 friends had gently hinted that I might). And I began to let go. Don’t get me wrong, the impulses are still there. But learned behavior has a wonderful way of compensating for impulses that no leader should act on. When I struggle with wanting to seize control, I keep these five insights in front of me. These five things help me remember that controlling everything means you will eventually end up leading nothing significant. 1. Leaders use control as a substitute for clarity. If you don’t know with absolute clarity what your organization is doing, where it’s going and how it’s going to get there (mission, vision and strategy), you can never truly align a team. As a result, you end up defaulting to control because people ‘just don’t get it’ and as a result you can’t trust them (or so you think). The reason you can’t ‘trust’ people of even stellar character is not because they aren’t trustworthy, it’s because you haven’t stated the mission, vision and strategy clearly enough in a way that it’s repeatable and reproducible. People run off in the wrong direction because you never made it clear what the right direction is. Create clarity, and you will feel the urge to control dissipate.

2. Control is often a substitute for an inability or unwillingness to delegate well 

You tell yourself the reason you control is because you gave the job to someone else and, well, they just didn’t do a good job. Ever think you maybe just didn’t train them well? Just get good at delegation. Again, clarity is your friend here. The clearer you are, the better you train others, the more razor sharp your strategy is, the more your team will knock it out of the park. When you grow your team, you grow your mission.

3. Your need for control and the size of your organization are inversely proportional

If everything needs to flow through you, you will not only bottleneck your organization, you’ll kill the potential of the mission. If you insist on staying in control, you will shrink the size of your organization to your personal capacity. The capacity of a team of leaders is always greater than the capacity of a single leader. What you can do through many is always greater than one you can do through one. The more you need to control, the smaller your organization will stay. The more you can release (around a crystal clear mission, vision and strategy), the more it will grow. It’s really this simple: A leader’s need for control and the size of an organization are inversely proportional.

4. Control repels great leaders

If you want great leaders to flee your organization, control them. They’ll leave. If you want to attract great leaders, release them with a clear mission, vision and strategy (and give them input to shape it). As long as you micromanage everything, you will only have do-ers in your organization, not lead-ers.

5. The more you let go, the healthier the organization gets

I absolutely love it that over the last decade, I get to go to events our church staff and volunteers have pulled together and have little to no idea about how the event came together or even what’s going on—that’s how involved I was in the planning. And you know what? They’re the best events we’ve ever run. The more I get out of the way, the stronger our team and organization get. Sure, I play a role, but I clearly don’t play every role. Nor should I. I love being a “guest” to the exceptional things our team does. And they love leading and helping people lead. It’s just healthier. And because they have a clear sense of mission, vision, strategy and even culture, amazing things happen. (Here’s a 5-step guide on how to create an amazing team culture.) The more I let go, the healthier our organization gets.

What Do You Think?

When I feel the impulse to control, I remind myself of these five things. What are you learning about control? How are you learning to release your grip?