From Controlling to Empowering Leadership


Truly accomplished leaders are people who have a compelling vision and the ability to rally others to make that vision a reality. However, we know from studying leaders like Ghandi and Mao, Roosevelt and Stalin, that leaders use different kinds of power to accomplish their visions. I want to distinguish between two forms of power:

  1. Control-over power (controllers)
  2. Influence-with power (empowerers)

Control-over power is probably the most prevalent form of power experienced by man throughout history. It is power that is imposed from without. Such leaders believe they have to control people in order to accomplish organizational results. These leaders may accomplish much, but often at a high price. At best, their tactics result in unthinking followers who learn to keep their heads down and do the minimum possible to avoid getting into trouble. At worst they create an environment of smoldering ill-will or even malicious compliance.

Influence-with power, on the other hand, begins with a very different set of assumptions. These leaders care about the needs and interests of their followers as well as their own. Rather than imposing control from without, they create an environment that elicits motivation and commitment from within. They seek mutually beneficial goals and inspire people to better levels of performance out of self-interest rather than force.

I believe that lots of leaders in today’s organizations are “controllers.” They believe they know what is best and so impose an agenda on people and expect compliance.

Here is an example, taken from the classic movie A Few Good Men. In the following scene, Jack Nicholson, plays the role of the top marine at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Three men are meeting in the Colonel’s office-the colonel, seated at his desk; Lieutenant Colonel, seated in front of the Colonel’s desk; and a Sergeant, standing.

Colonel: Who the **** is Private William T. Santiago?

Sergeant: A member of Second Platoon Bravo, Sir.

Colonel: Yeah. Well, apparently he’s not very happy down here in Shangri-la because he’s written letters to everybody but Santa Clause asking for a transfer. And now he’s telling tales about a fence-line shooting. Matthew? (looking at the second in command)

Lieutenant: I’m appalled sir.

Colonel: You’re appalled. This kid broke the chain of command and ratted on a member of his unit to say nothing of the fact that he is a U.S. Marine and it appears he can’t run from here to there without collapsing from heat exhaustion. What ***** is going on in Bravo company Matthew?

Lieutenant: Colonel, I think it would be better to hold this discussion in private.

Sergeant (speaking to the Lieutenant): That won’t be necessary. (Turning towards the colonel) I can handle this situation, sir.

Lieutenant: The same way you handled Curtis Bell?

Sergeant starts to speak.

Lieutenant: Don’t interrupt me, Sergeant. I’m still your superior officer.

Colonel: And I’m yours, Matthew. I want to know what we’re going to do about this.

Lieutenant: I think Santiago should be transferred off the base immediately.

Colonel: He’s that bad, huh?

Lieutenant: Not only that. But word of this letter is bound to get out. He’s going to get his Ass whipped.

Colonel: Hm. Transfer Santiago. Yes. I’m sure you’re right. I’m sure that’s the thing to do. Wait, I’ve got a better idea. Let’s transfer the whole squad off the base. Let’s—on second thought, Windward. Let’s transfer the whole Windward Division off the base. John (speaking to Sergeant), go get those boys down off the fence, they’re packing their bags. TOM (speaking to guard outside room).

Tom (opens door and enters the room): Sir.

Colonel: Get me the president on the phone. We’re surrendering our position in Cuba.

Tom: Yes, sir.

Colonel: Wait a minute, Tom. Don’t get the president just yet. Maybe we should consider this for a second. (Dismissed Tom.)

Tom: Yes, sir.

Colonel: Maybe, and I’m just spit-balling here. Maybe we have a responsibility as officers to train Santiago. Maybe, as officers, we have a responsibility to this country, to see that the men and women charged with its security are trained professionals. Yes, I’m certain I read that somewhere once. And now I’m thinking Colonel Markinson that your suggestion to transfer Santiago, while expeditious and certainly painless, might not be, in a manner of speaking, the American way. Santiago stays where he is. We’re going to train the lad. John, you’re in charge. If Santiago doesn’t make four-six, four-six on his next proficiency and conduct report then I’m going to blame you. Then I’m going to kill you.

Sergeant: Yes, sir.

Lieutenant, rising from his chair: I think that’s a mistake colonel.

Colonel: Matthew, I think I will have the word in private with you now. (Turning to Sergeant) John, that’s all. Why don’t we meet at the “O” club and have lunch and we’ll talk about the training of young William.

Sergeant: I’d be delighted to hear any suggestions that you might have sir.

Colonel: Dismissed.

Sergeant: Yes sir.

Colonel: Matthew, sit down, please. What do you think of Kendrick (sergeant)?

Lieutenant: My opinion of him has nothing to do whatsoever…

Colonel: I think he’s pretty much of a weasel myself. But he’s an awfully good officer and in the end we see eye-to-eye on the best way to run a Marine Corps unit. We’re in the business of saving lives, Matthew. That is a responsibility that we have to take pretty seriously. And I believe that taking a marine who is not quite up to the job and shipping him off to another assignment puts lives in danger.

Matthew begins to stand.

Colonel: Sit down, Matthew. (Colonel stands and sits on desk right in front of Matthew.) We go back a while. We went to the academy together. We were commissioned together. We did our tours in Vietnam together. But I’ve been promoted up through the chain with greater speed and success than you have. Now, if that’s a source of tension or embarrassment for you, I don’t give a ****. We’re in the business of saving lives, Lieutenant Colonel Markinson. Don’t ever question my orders in front of another officer. (Colonel walks out of room.)

You’ve probably seen the movie. In the end, Private Santiago dies in an attempt to “train” him. Officers on the base cover this up to protect the honor and loyalty of the marines, but the truth is eventually exposed and Colonel prosecuted.

I’ve read this transcript to the students of many leadership training courses. It leads to a pretty good discussion around the following questions:

  • What do controllers do to accomplish their objectives?
  • What is the impact of their behavior?
  • What beliefs are behind a controller’s behavior?

Most people can identify with this scenario, not because they’ve been in the military. (In fact, many military leaders use a much more collaborative approach than demonstrated here.) But most people have worked for leaders who are controlling.

Inevitably they describe that controllers tell, dictate, demand, believe they know best, fail to listen, expect compliance and so on. The consequences are far reaching. People almost universally describe the negative impact of this style of leadership. It causes them to feel frustrated, demoralized, and insignificant. People learn to put up with such leaders by keeping their heads down, watching the clock and staying out of trouble. Their hearts aren’t in what they do. They don’t enjoy their work (or workplace). They are simply going through the motions. Although not all controlling tactics are as extreme as those used by the Colonel, the effects are similar and contribute to a negative work environment.

Perhaps the fatal flaw of controlling leaders is their pride. They believe that they know more than others. They’re not open to learning or being influenced. They make positive assumptions about their own abilities and negative assumptions about the ideas, motivation, or capability of people around them.

I’ve consulted with a number of organizations with controlling leaders. Most of these leaders bring a great vision and “know-how” to their companies. My objective is to help them recognize the downside of their controlling style and help them learn that they’ll best fulfill their visions as they become more collaborative.

These leaders need to learn that no one is smarter than everyone. They need to understand that winning requires collaboration. They need to view employees are partners who truly want to contribute. They need to change their leadership from being the “hero” to creating a context in which teams of people share accountability to make great things happen. This is what empowering leadership is all about.

I’ve seen that change happen. If open to feedback, I’ve helped a number of managers through this transition by giving them some fairly simple communication tactics.

I ask them to seek feedback from their people. “What do I (or the company) do that supports you?” “What do I (or the company) do that gets in the way?”

I ask them to start listening (seek first to understand), before responding with answers and solutions.

And I ask them to shift from solving problems to facilitating the solution of problems by asking questions such as “What are the outcomes you/we want from this situation?” “What options do you see?” “What can you do?” “What support do you need from me?” “Who is accountable for what and by when?”

By using such tactics, leaders don’t give up power. They actually increase their power by leveraging their most important asset—the people around them on whom they depend and who are essential to realizing their goals.

In the long-run, “influence-with” leadership offers far-reaching advantages over “power-over” leadership. It is this leadership that builds trust and goodwill and taps into the collective genius of all employees.

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  1. Your discussion of power-over vs. influence-with reminds me of a discussion on the differences between persuasion and compulsion.

    Persuasion = outward compliance and inward willingness

    Compulsion = outward compliance and inward resentment

    It’s well for would-be leaders to understand the differences in those two and to seek to persuade, rather than compel people.

  2. Paula Henderson says:

    I think most leaders simply find it easier to use “group think” to dominate the organization. Anyone with an ability to think is chastised. That behaviour is simply driven by arrogance and intellectual laziness. It takes constant “training” outside the organization and self goals to achieve a level of innovation that inspires and motivates others. The bottom line is a lot of organizational leaders would simply dominate than engage in reflection to achieve that level of work…in the long run, the lack of true respect from the natural leaders will cause more grief.

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