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Leaders : Being controlling won’t stop you crashing

Leaders : Being controlling won’t stop you crashing

by Moyra Mackie on April 17, 2016

It’s a bitterly cold day and it finally begins to snow.  I’m due to take my four-year-old son to an assessment afternoon at what I hope will be his new school, which is ten miles away and in the middle of the countryside. I phone to see if the event is still on and an officious sounding school secretary declares it’s not snowing over there.

As far as the school is concerned it’s this day or no day

I strap my son into his car seat.  Once off the main road and onto the twisting country lanes, snow covers the road and is getting thicker all the time.  I try to balance the anxiety of getting there on time with the need to crawl along in second gear.  I try to keep my mood calm and light for the sake of the little blonde boy in the back seat, whose trusting face I can see in the rear view mirror.

At every twist in the road the car wheels lose grip and it takes successively longer to regain control.  Then there’s a corner where the road dips away sharply and I have no choice but to brake.  That’s when the car starts sliding.

It’s true what they say about scary events happening in slow motion, as I’ve got plenty of time to register the steep bank on one side of the road and a row of trees on the other.

When we’re fearful and in a hostile environment our instinct is to control

Somehow I resist the urge to brake.  Instead I let the engine stall and the car continues to glide, turning around and coming to a halt facing the way we had come. We’ve avoided hitting anything and I eventually get us to the school by over-riding any instinct to brake.

I was learning and adapting quickly.

Many times survival is about controlling our response to, rather than seeking to control, the environment

Neuroscience shows us that fear makes us irrational; our amygdala takes charge and short-circuits our capacity to reason and think clearly.

fearful controlling leadersControlling our fear, shortening the amount of time our amygdala is in charge, is the only way we can respond effectively to the environment.

Companies are acting as if they never got the fear memo 

Julian Stodd makes a powerful case that HR – the function we would all hope has its fingers on the pulse of what makes people tick – is failing to adapt:

“this is the ultimate challenge … the old entities are no longer relevant: the ecosystem has changed and they have failed to keep up.

Take learning: it used to be something formal, done to individuals, by organisations. It was carefully controlled and doled out as a prize or a punishment. Knowledge itself had value, and we segmented, captured and controlled it.

I still sit in meetings where there’s a discussion about whether access to leadership courses should be restricted just to delegates: as if we are somehow terrified of guerrilla learners who will infiltrate the system and learn for themselves, unsanctioned, uncontrolled, unwanted.”  ~ The spark that burnt HR to the ground

Braking in the snow will put you in control but it won’t stop you crashing

I’ve seen the brakes that HR and L&D try to use to maintain control.  I think there’s a link between this behaviour and the appalling absence of real leadership in many organisations.  When 60% of workers would fire their boss if they could  that’s an indictment of a whole system that includes recruitment, retention and promotion.

Julian Stodd and Julia Briggs both paint a picture of helplessness in HR which basically boils down to, “we would if we could but we can’t”.

Fear leads to a demand for controlling leaders

In a brilliant essay for Psychology Today Ray Williams ties together compelling research to make the link between uncertainty and the revival of macho leadership in both business and politics.

“We are in the mind set of a paradox in the form of a gap between the way leaders should be as defined by hundreds of leadership studies and surveys of employees—collaborative, compassionate, empathetic—and the leaders we actually end up choosing—controlling, often authoritarian, often narcissistic, and dominating, and usually males.”

Fear and control lead to exhaustion and failure

Williams again:

“Brute force productivity is mechanistic, manipulative, obsessive and ultimately ineffective. Like all mindless uses of power it produces short term wins at the cost of long term exhaustion and collapses. There is no surer way for any organization to ensure its future extinction than to throw itself headlong into a no-holds-barred contest for short-term advantage.”

Adapt or die

Charles Darwin never said anything about survival of the fittest.  What he did document was the importance of adaptation – our ability as living organisms to develop resilience in order to flourish in a changing environment:

“Adaptations enhance the fitness and survival of individuals. Organisms face a succession of environmental challenges as they grow and develop and are equipped with an adaptive plasticity [which] develop in response to the imposed conditions.” ~ Wikipedia

Controlling leadership should be called out for the expensive failure it is

I couldn’t put it better than Williams does:

“It’s time to drop this callous, short term macho nonsense for the sake of everyone’s sanity and long term success. There is no objective reason to accept today’s stressful brutalizing international and domestic workplace cultures, with its constant emphasis on meeting short term expectations, and dominating the competition or ‘enemy.’  Today’s uncivilized culture fuelled by macho male leaders can only continue at the cost of rising conflict, health problems and increasing numbers of people facing a warped and debilitating existence.” ~ How fear and uncertainty are reviving macho leadership

Or as the mother of management thinking, Mary Parker Follett, wisely put it back in 1868:

“Coercive power is the curse of the universe; co-active power, the enrichment and advancement of every human soul.” ~ The New State

We need to reconnect with our purpose and gain perspective

Very shortly after that incident in the snow I rationalised the way I responded (which may mean it’s not true!)  I thought that I stopped myself from trying to over- control the situation by braking because my son was in the car; his presence made me remember what was really important.

I believed then – and still do now – that if he hadn’t been in the car I would have been much more reckless and reactive.  I would have wanted to “win” against the elements and in doing that I may very well have lost.

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Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie

Moyra Mackie helps leaders and teams to work with courage, compassion and creativity. She is an executive coach and consultant and the founder of Mackie Consulting.

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