The Rise and Fall of the Control Freak

Successful business leaders tend to be control freaks.  They care passionately about the quality of their product.  They are perfectionists.  They are the architects of the vision and the strategy, and they understand their business and their brand better than anybody else. So they retain control of every aspect of the management of the business and no decisions are made without their approval.  Their leadership style is the key driver of business success but as the business grows, their leadership style is also potentially its downfall.

The reason for this is that the other defining characteristic of control freaks is that they find it difficult to trust.  It’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.  If they trusted others to make the decisions that they would make themselves, they wouldn’t be control freaks.  The challenge for the control freak is that the bigger the business gets, the more difficult it is to control.  If the control freak doesn’t evolve his or her skill set and management style, the desire to control will paralyze the business.  Decisions aren’t made, opportunities are missed, the organization becomes paralyzed.  It’s at this point that the control freak needs to learn to trust.

This wasn’t always the case.  Once upon a time the pace of business – even retail business – moved more slowly.  There was no Electronic Point of Sale technology. There was no social media, with the power to destroy a brand’s reputation over night. The walls hadn’t come down.  Decisions could wait until the control freak was ready to make them.  Not any more.  Retail strategy may need to change overnight and reputation management demands a constant grasp of the Twitter Handle.

Trust therefore becomes a business critical issue and successful business leaders respond to the challenge by evolving their management style to act in a totally counter-intuitive way.  It takes a high degree of emotional intelligence in order to do this.   They look for organizational structures and processes that seek to promote trust within a defined framework.  These structures and processes entrust management teams to distinguish between those decisions that they can make themselves and those that require the business leader’s input.  This may well feel like a huge step for the control freak but the only way to make somebody trustworthy is to trust them, and when this works, it is liberating for the control freak and transformational for the business.  There is another, corollary benefit.   Autonomy, mastery and purpose are what drive brilliant performance in creative businesses (see my earlier post), and control freaks don’t naturally foster autonomy.  So the need to delegate powers through an evolved organizational structure can actually motivate the broader team and drive improved performance.

The dangers for the control freak who cannot evolve their leadership style are serious indeed.  Firstly, their management team become ‘yes-men’ and tell their leader what they think he or she wants to hear, rather than what they really think.  They rationalize this by saying, ‘What’s the point of telling him what I really think?  He’ll only do what he wants to do anyway’.  This becomes exacerbated in a climate of fear.  Sam Goldwyn, the G of MGM, once said, ‘I don’t want any yes-men around me.  I want everybody to tell me the truth, even if it costs them their job’.   And if people are prepared to put their necks on the line to tell you the truth, you need to be an active listener in order to hear it.  The second, related issue, is that the control freak’s definition of trust becomes twisted.  When a business leader tells me that they need to know that they can trust me, I respond by saying that that depends on what they mean by trust.  If trust means to always execute orders flawlessly and without question, or trust means to take the bullet whatever the circumstances, I cannot guarantee to deliver against these iterations of trust.  If trust, however, means to always strive to give the best possible advice, honestly, and transparently, without fear or favor, this is a definition of trust that is likely to build functional and committed management teams, and deliver long term business success.   Yes, in the long term, trust is the only sustainable strategy to secure the rise and rise of the control freak.


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