From Micro-Manager to Micro-Leader

One of the biggest mistakes I see leaders make, is overvaluing being “in control” and undervaluing being “under control.”

Understanding, appreciating, and even building upon this distinction is what separates the empowering, inspiring leaders — from the draining and fear-driven micromanagers.

The Genesis of Control

Many leaders — especially founders — find initial career success by exhibiting high degrees of control on projects, products, and company visions. Without a team around them, it’s this tight end-to-end grip on work that seems to generate strong results, especially during the early stages, when they’re getting a product or startup off the ground.

Because they don’t know any other way — and because this locus of control seems to have paid off in the short-term — they then extrapolate and overvalue control while leading larger, more complex teams and projects.

But here comes the great paradox: in the words of world-leading management coach and consultant, Marshall Goldsmith, “What got you here, won’t get you there.

This dependency on overvaluing control, becomes a major issue as these leaders let their ego, fear and authority limit their teams, instead of empowering them and driving amazing results through “under control” leadership.

The Limits of Control

Though many leaders may think of their desire for control as a manifestation of their self-confidence (often reinforced by good results, previously), reality reflects the exact opposite. The most confident leaders are those who are comfortable relinquishing control to their team, and placing trust in others to do great work.

A leader who overvalues being in control leads to:

  • Micromanagement: exhausting the leader while frustrating and limiting her team.
  • Lack of diverse perspectives: instead of allowing new ideas and approaches to organically develop, a tight grip on control reigns in creativity, self-expression, and serendipitous progress.
  • A disempowered team: Dan Pink points out that “autonomy” is a top factor driving motivation. A controlling leader fails his teammates in growing, developing, and maturing to their full potential.

The Under Control Leader

The difference between being “in control” and “under control” is small in vocabulary — but huge in semantics.

In contrast to the controlling leader who is driven by fear, ego, and power, the “under control” leader is calm, confident, and empowering to her staff.

Here’s how she does it:

  • Vision and values: she understands that the role of the leader is to set a vision for her team or project, and articulate (and model) the way to go about making it a reality.
  • Empowers her team: Once the vision and values are set, she knows that things are “under control” as she replaces micromanagement with trust in her teammates.
  • Servant leadership: rather than command and authority, she relies on helping her team be their very best, and does whatever it takes to make that happen.
  • Information and decisions: she lets go of her ego — wanting to have all of the information and make every decision — and instead allows others to have agency in service of the team’s goals.

To be clear, an “under control” leader is not passive; in fact, he is the exact opposite.

Because he has worked so actively to create a culture and environment where teammates know their roles, how they fit into the larger vision, and where they have the room to be creative and innovative, he’s built the infrastructure that allows for a high-functioning team to blossom. This is a far more difficult task than controlling everything and everyone. Whereas being in control is a “lizard brain” reaction, letting fear and ego drive immediate decisions, an under-control leader spends her time on the “important but not urgent” area of leadership and management — far less frantic and far more time truly feeling “under control.”

From “In Control” to “Under Control”

Think of the transition from “in control” to “under control,” as going from micromanagement to microleadership. Micromanaging is exhausting (on both sides) and disempowering. Microleadership, by contrast, turns leadership from a title — into an act. It helps teammates operate at their highest capacity, come up with new ideas, and contribute to the greater whole.

And if you are a leader who is currently “in control” but wants to instead be “under control,” know that many fellow leaders have made this transition. Think of it as your final, yet finest, act of being in control — showing the agency and control to let go.

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