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Behavior Engagement Freedom Leadership Productivity

Why control is an illusion

You want to be a leader people admire. Not because of your position or your title but because you inspire them. Because you lead from a position of freedom, not fear.

So you have decided to become a leader.

You may have made that decision many years ago, perhaps not so long ago, or you’re still deliberating the decision to jump in the pool and start leading people.

Or it was never a conscious decision. Your supervisor came to you, and before you knew it, you were leading a group of people. It happens often that way, too. There is no intentional training, coaching, mentoring, or onboarding. 

Just “Here are the keys. Go lead these people.”

This is different from how it’s supposed to be done, but it happens often. “No time” to introduce people to the most critical first step in their life as a leader. 

To be a leader who people follow, admire, and are inspired by, there are many leadership lessons to be learned, and we will tackle the most important of them. I want to start with the most important lesson. It’s the lesson that makes your life as a leader significantly ‘easier’ and the life of those who ‘work’ for (with) you more inspiring. 

That lesson is: “Control is an illusion.”

Here are two examples to illustrate my point. Let me start with the most obvious: Controlling your birth. 

The chances of being born are one in four hundred trillion. I might be a few million off, but it’s still a significant number. Therefore, my first lesson that control is an illusion is that you had very, very, very little control over your birth. 

And still, when we look in the mirror, get stuck in traffic, have an annoying boss, burn our carefully prepared dinner, and can’t fall asleep because of a snoring partner, we manage to complain about how life sucks.

Stop complaining. One in four hundred trillion!!! You have already won the lottery, and you did not have any control over it. You had zero influence on your parents’ falling in love.

My second example is Covid.

No company predicted in their business plan that a pandemic would halt the world. Even when Bill Gates talked about it in a TED talk years before. People don’t like predictors of doom. Many high-profile leaders have a blown-up ego that tells them they’re invincible. Supported by the army of ‘yay-sayers’ in their organization. A recipe for disaster. The illusion of control.

And then the world stopped. From one day to another, businesses could not operate anymore or saw their revenues skyrocket. The grocery business was a good business to be in. The airline business was not so much for a significant while. Restaurants lost their business from one moment to the other, depending on the level of government restrictions.

For some, disaster had struck, and for some, opportunity showed its pretty face. For some families, COVID-19 was a disaster, but for some, it was a blessing. Marriages fell apart, and marriages were rekindled. 

One glass of water. Half full for some. Half empty for others.

I loved Covid. My family was close. We walked almost every day. We took turns in cooking meals. We had conversations. We played games. We were connected. We couldn’t control the pandemic other than being respectful of rules, but we focused on what we could influence. Our connection with each other.

And I’ve heard many stories of people having a totally different experience. Of course, some suffered health-wise or even passed away. These tragic stories only confirm my point about the illusion of control. 

There are also countless stories of company executives becoming increasingly frustrated by the day when people were not interested in returning to the office. This is another example of the illusion of control. You believe you can order people to return to the office against their will. And yes, they will show up. But in their mind, they’re quitting on you. There’s a term for it since COVID-19: Quiet quitting.

That leads me to the beauty of leadership. 

The most poignant difference between leadership and management is that leadership is about influencing people to follow your direction and inspiring them to love the work they do and deliver the best job they can. Those words are written with every possible positive intention: to lead people who love to be led by you because they know they will grow and get better under your leadership.

How does this work?
  • You ask. You don’t tell.
  • You inspire and empower. You don’t command and control.
  • You trust. And you verify (which is not the same as control).
  • You hold people able to do the job. And they will hold themselves accountable.
  • You love creativity and experimentation, but they should serve the purpose of growing the business. Mistakes are okay if they lead to lessons that help the business advance.
  • You provide regular feedback. Positive and growth-focused. You don’t avoid conversations.
  • You make time when they need it. You don’t say, “I don’t have time.”
  • You provide freedom within a framework. You invest time in building the framework so people know their responsibilities.
Therefore, you influence. You don’t control. 

Because you know control is an illusion. Chasing control makes nobody happy. Not even yourself. It’s called a control freak or micro-manager for a reason.

You know nobody gets happy when you ‘control’ the energy out of everybody.

You want to be a leader people admire. Not because of your position or your title but because you inspire them. Because you lead from a position of freedom, not fear.

“Fear confines; Freedom expands.”

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Leading this way is more fun. 

A note of caution at the end. And just to be clear. I’m not talking here to let go of controls that exist in companies. We need numbers, data, and information to make decisions. 

But those controls are a means to an end — not the end. Those controls help us make better decisions and empower our people to lead and influence their teams to grow, challenge, and improve their performance. 

Numbers are just numbers. They have context, need communication, and tell a story. However, they are often abused because many managers don’t know how to leverage numbers to inspire better performance. It’s not about the numbers; they are another illusion of control.

It’s all about the leader who knows how to inspire with numbers. It’s all about the leader who loves walking outside the lines, outside the comfort zone, exploring unchartered territory, and embracing those moments when things are slightly outside her control. Because that’s when learning begins. That’s when people grow.

Your turn: Are you having fun leading?

Erikjan

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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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