Who's In Control?
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“If you want to retain those who are present, be loyal to those who are absent.”

-- Dr. Stephen Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

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Who's in Control? by Kevin McManus

First published in Industrial Engineer magazine May 2000

I doubt that anyone would argue that strong leadership is essential for high levels of organizational performance.  After all, some of the best paid speakers on the circuit today are coaches of professional sports teams or quarterbacks that have led their teams to the Super Bowl.  In a more serious sense, leadership is also the first category in the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award criteria, which are designed to assess an organization’s level of performance excellence.  Without effective leaders, progress is tough to come by.  The debate begins however when the question is asked “What types of actions and attributes are requisite for good leadership?”

One of the memory clips I have regarding leadership comes from a training session on the topic that I attended fifteen years ago.  My plant manager at that time was giving an introductory speech to kick the session off, and he began by asking “What is the role of a leader?”  Having not yet invested a lot of time in studying the topic, I was intrigued by his answer “The primary roles of a leader are to plan, organize, direct, and control.”  Since that time I have of course learned that this message was not that unique, but I became even more intrigued by the fact it is more illusionary that real.

I really can’t take too much exception to the first three parts of that definition.  Leaders do have to be good at planning and organizing, and directing skills are also important to ensure that a shared vision is communicated and understood.  It is the “control” piece that I have come to discover is out of place.  Unfortunately, it is also probably the piece of this definition that many people are attracted to when they make the choice to move into a leadership position.  As much as we would like to think that we can “control” people or “hold them accountable”, the fact is that we can’t.  We can make them physically be at work for a certain number of hours, and we can even confine them to a physical space while they are there, but if we think we can control their minds and hearts, we are very mistaken.

In his book “Stewardship”, author Peter Block makes the point that many people allow themselves to be controlled in return for security.  He also points out that in today’s world however, the promise of security can rarely be supported.  A paradox is thus created – some leaders enjoy thinking that they control others, and people are willing to give up some of their freedom in exchange for a sense of security that really can’t be provided.  The question still remains however – who is really in control?

Work is not prison, even though some would like to draw the analogy.  We often give too much power to our leaders by thinking that we will lose our jobs if we say the wrong thing or debate a point of view that we may not share.  At the same time, we can each probably think of examples where our peers thumbed their noses at this illusionary control by taking extended breaks or letting substandard work move through the system to the customer.  We may even be able to recall a time when we have personally reacted to an attempt to control us by working at a slightly slower pace or doing personal work on company time.  In my opinion, a lack of effective leadership is probably the greatest productivity drain in the workplace today.

My definition of leadership is simple – the role of a leader is to develop people and improve systems.  The word “control” is not part of this definition, but the desired benefits of what some wish control would provide (higher performance) is.  People want respect, a good work environment, and a chance to contribute.  By developing better work systems and helping their people improve their skills, leaders get higher levels of performance from “their” people.  This contribution is a not by decree, but by desire that comes from within.

The linkage between true leadership and the role supervisors play in organizations should not missed.  Because front line supervisors are charged with improving systems (their departments), they also have the opportunity to affect the work environment in a positive way.  Because they are in closer contact with a high percentage of the workforce, especially in comparison to those in the front office, they can serve as key communication links between the front lines and those at the top.  Supervisors can probably influence the performance of an organization more than any vice president or president.

If you think you control others, and you attempt to do so through restrictive policies or mandates, you are only fooling yourself.  People will do what they want to do, and they will do a great job of making it look like they are adhering to your wishes.  How often has product quality or customer service suffered because the emphasis was on getting good efficiency numbers?  The leader got what he or she wanted (higher numbers), but did the customer?  Who is in control?

This article would be applicable if I was writing it twenty years ago.  Today however, the need for true, supportive leadership is even greater.  In one book, “The Cluetrain Manifesto”, the authors make this point clear.  Because of the Internet and company intranets, people can be controlled even less.  If "your" people don’t like what you are doing, they will tell others both inside and outside of the company, and the word will spread very quickly.  Fortunately, this works in both directions.  In time, supportive, respectful leaders will flourish along with their people – those who are in these roles to control others won’t.  The choice is ours to make. Keep improving!

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