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Leader's Digest: Leadership and Control—Learn to Let Go

From his days directing Missouri’s Christian Hospital EMS a decade ago to his current work as a consultant and development specialist, Chris Cebollero has learned enough about leadership to have written multiple successful books about it. This new series excerpts his Ultimate Leadership: 10 Rules for Success. For more see  

Rule #2: Don’t Waste Time and Energy on Things You Can’t Control

When I first became a leader, I wasted a lot of time and energy on things I couldn’t control. I’d imagine the worst-case scenario in every situation, and I’d stress myself out with endless worry. It was a long time before I learned this lesson and added it to my personal leadership toolbox. 

In my life I wanted to be able to control every aspect of my day, my work, and what my team was doing at all times. The reality is, there are things we just can’t control. Personally, I don’t think we can really control anything. 

Great leadership is about being able to listen and respond in a positive way. It’s about moving forward and solving problems as they come up. When I was just starting out as an inexperienced leader, I spent too much time worrying and wondering what might happen tomorrow. I caused a lot of my own stress.

Tomorrow is going to come regardless of what we spend our time thinking about, and if we spend time and energy on things we can’t control, we are truly wasting our time. Stop for a moment and think about how much time you spend worrying. If we took that same amount of time and instead focused on something more positive, think of how much more successful we would be.

Seven Ways to Know If You’re a Control Freak

  • Your team struggles to share new ideas;
  • You think you’re wonderful;
  • You always know you’re right;
  • You control organizational information; 
  • You are part of every decision;
  • You can’t let go of the reins;
  • You are the final authority—on every decision. 

As human beings we are very complicated individuals. We have a deep need to have a sense of control over our lives and what happens to us. However, some people have such a strong need to maintain control that it takes over much of their time and hinders their success. Wanting to be in control to that extent usually comes from some deep-rooted history, fears, or negative experiences. 

There are warning signs of becoming too controlling that we need to think about as leaders. If we’re trying to control the things around us too much, folks become apprehensive, and they won’t bring us their ideas. That hurts our ability to lead. If we don’t empower others to succeed, we’re really the ones who are going to fail. If you think you might have a problem with control, it is important to learn specific ways to give up control. 

Delegation of Authority

Delegation of authority is when you give your empowerment, your authority, to someone to complete a task. One of the mistakes control-oriented leaders make is trying to stand over their shoulder and micromanage them. One mistake I made as a leader taught me this lesson the hard way. 

I had given one of my team members a project to do, and they said, “What’s your vision for this?” I said, “My vision is that we want to be effective and cost-efficient,” but I gave no other details. Every so often I’d check on the process and ask, “How are things going?” but I didn’t follow through with any details. Then at the end, when the project was submitted to me, I made a comment that was really taken the wrong way. They asked me, “What do you think? How does it look?” I said, “This is not the way I would have done it.” 

It wasn’t about me at that point, it was about a team member who was taking on something new and asking for feedback. Actually her development of the project was better than I would have done, but that isn’t how it came out! She understood it as, “You didn’t do it as well as I would have.” 

When we give our empowerment to other people, however they get the job completed, we have to be able to accept that and only offer constructive feedback on the result. Then we can guide them and help their skills along without making them feel defensive. If there’s a component missing in the project that they’re not seeing, stand back and allow them to make mistakes. Allow them to experience that and grow from their experience without reaching for that sense of control you’d get from taking over. 

Don’t allow yourself to be afraid. Beware of the “what if…?” trap. In the workforce our weekly scare, the story we tell ourselves, goes something like this: What if it’s not good enough? What if they’re going to replace me? What if I make a mistake? What if, what if, what if?

Being afraid is not going to hurt you. Learning the skill of dealing with your fears is something anyone can accomplish. One of the challenges is that most people hold on to their emotions. They make them part of their inner foundation, their beliefs about themselves, which ultimately gives fear control. 

The bottom line is, fear is the enemy to our success, and we need to be able to ensure we become partners with our fear so we can overcome its power. 

You’re always going to have anxieties and apprehensions. Learn to keep them exactly where they need to stay: as passing thoughts, not agents of control.

Chris Cebollero, NRP, is a senior partner for Cebollero & Associates in St. Louis, Mo. He is a member of the EMS World editorial advisory board. 


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