Lead with Learning Series: Leader Control  

by | Jun 27, 2024 | Leaders

This is Part Five in a series where I explore how a Lead with Learning approach to team development addresses many of the challenges organizations and leaders face. I’m writing my next book, Lead with Learning, and admittedly, using this newsletter to write different chapters. Enjoy the book preview!

Janice traces her leadership roots back to her college years and a series of leadership roles of increasing responsibility. When I interviewed her for my book, she was working as an Innovation Manager for an academic institution. She generously shared the experiences and challenges she experienced as a new leader.  

In 2016, Janice was early in her career as a leader and was working for a growing tech company in Silicon Valley. As a scaling tech company, the company’s culture was fast-paced and high stakes. The pressure from the executive team was significant. Janice was overseeing a new product launch, and the narrative was, “This launch needs to be successful, or the company will fail.”  

The launch was struggling, and so Janice went to India to oversee things directly. She didn’t have expertise in the technical aspects of the product, so struggled to find the solutions they needed. She managed through it, and the launch was marginally successful.  

As a more mature leader now looking back on that experience, Janice realized she should have flown in two experts from her team who had the required technical knowledge. They could have worked together to find a solution, which would have resulted in a more successful product launch. At the time, however, Janice was trying to take control of a situation over which she felt she had no control. She didn’t have the technical expertise, and as a new leader, didn’t realize this was okay – that’s what her team was for. The more she didn’t know, the more she tried to control things. It was a viscous downward cycle. She didn’t have the technical expertise, and as a new leader, didn’t realize this was okay – that’s what her team was for. The more she didn’t know, the more she tried to control things. It was a viscous downward cycle. Trying to take control is a horrible instinct, Janice shared. It increases stress levels, leads to impulsive decisions, and an inability to see the nuances of a situation to identify creative solutions.   

When I asked what caused her to cling to control and not invite her team members to collaborate, Janice shared that it stemmed from the need for perfection – to be better and more capable and, ultimately, from a feeling of imposter syndrome.  

Janice’s story highlights the challenges leaders, especially new leaders, face as they develop in their leadership role. There’s a misconception that the leader needs to still be the technical expert. When they aren’t, like Janice, they can feel out of control. They haven’t developed the skills or realized their role to guide others doing the work. Leaders hold onto control and double down on trying to be the expert. In Janice’s situation, it led to feeling like an imposter. “I’m supposed to have the technical skills to manage this launch successfully, but I don’t. What kind of a leader am I if I can’t do this?” 

In my work with leaders and in my research for this book, control, emerged as challenge leaders face. This is especially true in an environment that prioritizes getting results above all else and, in doing so, sacrifices other activities that support long-term growth.  

Successful employees are regularly promoted into management roles because of their technical expertise. Often, they struggle to shift from doing the work themselves to getting it done through others.  

Dennis had a very successful career in technical sales, sales and client strategy for a global technology company. He was mid-career and had been with the company for 15 years when he was offered a position to lead an international team. It took Dennis six months to realize that he needed to delegate and learn how to tap into the expertise of his team members to get the work done instead of doing it himself. Until he figured that out, he was swamped, trying to manage everyone and everything.  

Individual contributors get the work done. They work best when they control the work they do and the details of how to do it. They don’t control the bigger picture, the larger perspective or the broader objective, but they have control over their work. This sense of control, or autonomy, contributes to their internal motivation.1 When moving into a manager role, leaders no longer have control over how the work gets done. Instead, they have control over the objectives and direction of the team. When you’re accustomed to controlling the work, giving that up and refocusing on the larger objective can be challenging. This can be further exacerbated in middle managers – those who have some influence over the organization’s goal but are not the decision-makers. Senior leaders make the strategic decisions, so some managers may feel that, in addition to not controlling the details of the work, they also don’t control the overall direction.

As a middle manager, they are squeezed and may feel rudderless or like a cog in a machine. This is fertile ground for trying to control how employees do their work and micromanaging their team members. Instead, leaders need to replace control over doing the work with control over how they coach and develop their employees.  

To be clear, the struggle to balance doing the work versus managing others doing the work isn’t limited to new managers. I worked with an executive leadership team as part of my Team Culture of Learning program. These executives work for a smaller organization – under 500 employees. They shared that they struggle to find this balance and explained that they are hired for their technical skills in addition to their leadership capabilities. In their opinion, the smaller size of their organization creates an expectation that they do the work alongside their team members in addition to leading at a strategic level. Even at this senior level, there is an opportunity for these senior leaders to shift and stop doing the hands-on work.  

When leaders can shift from doing to leading, they increase the capability of their team members and improve their team’s performance. They can also delegate more, which frees up their time to focus on more strategic initiatives

I invite you to complete this free short diagnostic I created to asses three areas of creating a Team Culture of Learning: Learning Mindset, Team Culture and Organizational Support. Control shows up in a few places, and most prominently in Team Culture. Find out where you and your leaders have strengths and where there’s opportunity to improve.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Daniel Pink. Riverhead Books. 2011.  

I’ve shared some additional posts online. Here they are, in case you missed them.  

  • Own decisions and learn from Failure (video link
  • Curiosity workshop and card deck (video link
  • DISC workshop for team development (video link
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Hannah Brown

I help close the gap between formal training from learning and development and leaders fostering learning on their teams to embed it into their DNA.