I like to tell myself that I am not a control freak. Right. It’s kind of like trying to tell myself that I am not an old, fat, balding, white guy.
As much as the “ideal me” wants to lead from a posture of letting go, giving away power, and fueling the creative capacity of the next generation, there is a constant voice in my head that cries, “but, what if…”
A few weeks ago I introduced a year-long series to chronicle my experiences and discoveries as I transition out of the leadership role I have held for almost 16 years. If you missed that one, click here. I am actively handing the baton of leadership away to my successor who is both 25 years behind me and light years ahead of me. It is a process I have coached others through and thought much about, but I'm sure I will be continuously surprised by my experiences and my discoveries.
This is installment #2: Fighting the Urge for Control.
Over the years, I have watched a familiar pattern as leaders turn toward the finish line we call retirement. All of a sudden they exert a death grip on the steering wheel, afraid that someone or something will take the ship of state off course. When leadership succession should be a time for loosening their fingers to make space and freedom for new ideas from the next generation, they strive to lock down their ideas and initiatives.
Instead of celebrating the opportunity for the next generation to move the ball down the field, a white-knuckled fear provokes attempts to exert control. Some fear what they created will be dismantled. Others fear that change or new ideas will invalidate what they worked so hard for. And, more than a few simply choose to hang on, postponing the inevitable and getting in the way of the future they know is needed.
Okay, I recognize this sounds a bit impersonal. Kind of like an abstract commentary on what other people do. But, I promised to write about my experience. So here’s what I am observing about the urges in me to fight for control.
I truly don’t think I have been a control freak, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a control-loving dude just below the surface ready to bust out. This leadership transition has me in new territory. Every day I find that I have to make difficult decisions on how much to weigh in, how much to hold back, how hard to push, and what issues to stay out of entirely.
I have to consciously fight the desire to step in just a little more to “help” control the future that others will have to live with.
All of these micro-experiences of fighting against the urge for control are teaching me a lot about the bigger control-demon I (and maybe all of us) face.
The Quest for Control is Based on Fear.
I know some of the landmines that lie ahead for my successor. In my head, I know I couldn’t prevent them all if I tried. However, because I want him to succeed, my worries try to seduce me to step in and and manage the variables, to pretend I can protect him. However, if I grab the wheel and try to control things, I will disempower his leadership and short-circuit the foundation of his future. So, every day, I choose his future over my fear.
The Quest for Control Flows from Faulty Thinking about Legacy
Leadership transitions always surface questions about legacy. Especially those transitions that take place at the season of life where I am. What will people remember me for? Of all the things I have worked on, what will survive beyond me? How will my finger print linger over the next chapter? Will people be able to forgive and forget my shortcomings? etc. etc.
Some of these questions should be blamed on erroneous thinking.
The legacy of our lives is not defined by the programs or the organizations we leave behind. The legacy of our lives is embodied in the people to whom we’ve given ourselves away.
Programs and organizations are mechanisms by which we empower those people to multiply the impact of their lives. So, every day, I choose to let go of my fear about the stuff and celebrate the fruit in the lives of people.
The Antidote for Control is Trust.
I am surrounded by people who are smarter than I am. What would ever make me afraid I can’t trust them? If I give into fear and seek to control things, I will communicate that I don’t trust them. I have always wanted to be a leader who leads with an open hand, who empowers others, and who gets to discover the creative horsepower of people I trust. So, every day, I choose to open my hands as I hand the baton to the next generation.
I know I am still scratching the surface. There is so much to learn about resisting the fears common to a transition like this, but today, this is how the conversation sounds.
What about you?
I have a hunch, these lessons apply across the board to everyone who walks in the trenches of leadership every day. How do you see them in your life?