Real Leaders

4 Ways Leaders Can Let Go of the Illusion of Control

Most leaders are smart enough to know that control is easy to talk about, but hard to accomplish. So why, then, do they spin their wheels agonizing over what they can’t control? Surely they can spend their precious time and energy in far more productive ways, such as leading.

Now you’re probably thinking, “Who, me?” But if you were audacious enough to be honest and self-aware, you’d almost certainly confess that you, too, cave to the illusion of control.

Yet there’s light at the end of the tunnel. And while it may be hard to see it now, it’s an enormous relief not to worry about what is truly outside of your control. In other words, it’s liberating to let go.

Start here, with these four techniques I’ve developed:

1. Lead people with outcomes, not tasks. 

Surely you don’t want to be micromanaged by your boss, business partners, or board. So don’t hover over your people. Instead, help them understand the business outcomes you’re targeting and then let them do their work their way. It’s alright to guide them occasionally or give them interim metrics to achieve, but don’t get in their face about day-to-day tasks or minutiae. You’ll be a leader who focuses on the big picture — not the small stuff. And who wouldn’t want that?

2. Expect the best.

Rather than assume that employees are intentionally dragging their feet, attempting to buck the system, or underperforming all around, why not expect the best from them? If there’s a good reason to believe differently later, that’s fine. Otherwise, give people the benefit of the doubt and focus on the positive.

3. Recognize the difference between ability and attitude.

When people can do a job but don’t want to, you’re looking at an attitude problem. But when they genuinely want to complete a task or project, but don’t yet know how, you’ve got an ability issue. Consider this an opportunity to diagnose and improve, not a problem to control.

4. Always have a Plan B. 

In business as in life, having a backup plan is essential to success. I once coached an entrepreneur who was clearly over-reliant on a top employee who’d long been critical to the company’s success. One day I decided to ask him, “What if he leaves?” Without blinking an eye, he exclaimed, “Oh, he’d never leave.” But guess what? He did leave. And today, that entrepreneur has a backup plan for every one of his principal people and pursuits.

Former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” It turns out; he was on to something.

As a leader, you’ll achieve a lot more by letting go of the illusion of control— and facing what’s right in front of you.

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