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Abandoning the Illusion of Control

Abandoning the Illusion of Control

SEPTEMBER 17, 2014

/ Articles / Abandoning the Illusion of Control

Have you heard the old story about the tour bus in the Holy Land, stopped for a herd of sheep crossing the road? A local resident with a stick was busily poking and swatting the sheep to move them along. A tourist who had gotten out to take pictures said to the local tour guide, “Why is he following along behind using a stick? I thought shepherds were supposed to be out front leading the sheep.” The local guide said, “Oh, he’s not a shepherd. He’s the butcher.”

I was at an academic conference recently where a presenter was applying a theory called “aesthetic leadership.” One of the elements of the theory was “abandon the illusion of control.” I won’t get into how it was being interpreted (and it wasn’t what you might think), but the phrase has stayed with me and seemed like it should fit well in a discussion about grace and the organization.

Leadership positions, using a narrow definition, typically include tasks other than “leading”—like planning goals, organizing resources and controlling finances—“management” tasks. Good stewardship often demands strict oversight of the “things” of the organization, but ideally, when it comes to people, the leader in the leadership role actually “leads.” The challenge of leadership—the scary part—is that the “leading” part of a leadership role means abandoning the illusion of control.

Granted there are times when an employee’s behavior needs to be controlled. Sometimes the person in the leadership position has to say something like “if you do that unsafe (or disruptive or wasteful or unethical, etc.) thing again, you’ll be written up (or lose your bonus or be fired, etc.).” But while necessary at times for one in a leadership position—it isn’t really “leading.”

Studies of leader influence have indicated that things like a leader’s commitment to and communication of the mission, consideration of followers, and use of the leader’s expertise in relevant knowledge areas, are more likely to lead to “follower commitment to the mission”—the ideal outcome of leading. In contrast, the tools of control—things like pulling rank (“I’m the boss”), incentives, and coercion—while possibly necessary and useful at times, are more likely to result in compliance, at best—or at worst, even resistance. Actual control over a follower’s commitment is indeed an illusion. So why would I ever try to control it?

You’ll remember James and John’s mother came to Jesus with her sons (Mt 20:20-28) to ask that they be placed at the very center of the inner group they assumed would be in charge of Jesus’ kingdom. The Bible scholars may say I’m reaching too much, but in addition to the prestige and glory of being “at the top,” I’m guessing that Mom and the boys were also attracted to the position of being “in control.”

I get that. I want to be in the inner group and be in control. I want to control because of my fears and insecurities. I want to control because I don’t want to look bad. I want to control because I’m a sinner and I don’t want to trust God all the time. The desire for autonomy apart from God, for being in control instead of God, is at the core of what sin is—seeking autonomy rather than submitting ourselves to God and His plans. And like most sin, autonomy—control—is very attractive. 

And it seems like it can be doubly hard for a leader, with the temptation to fulfill a sense of this control, by trying to control others. I’ve wondered before if an element of my attraction (my “calling”) to leadership all these years includes some unconscious part of me recognizing that I can’t control myself, so maybe being in a leadership role, with a group of talented people, will give me more opportunity for that sense of control that is so attractive, and that I couldn’t get on my own.

Jesus’ response to James, John and the other disciples was not to say “avoid leadership.” Rather it was to say “lead,” with Jesus as the model—following a calling subject to the Father’s will; using gifts given by the Father; coming to serve and sacrifice, not to be served; with leadership as one’s contribution to the mission…and all along recognizing that the Father is the One in control.

So I know I’m going to still try to control people sometimes. Sometimes I’ll be behind the “herd” pushing and prodding, just to try to get them to do things the way I want them to be done—maybe even as an attempt to gain a sense of control apart from God. Eventually Jesus will help me recognize it, and remind me that in reality, any sense of control apart from Him is an illusion. He’ll tell me that He loves me anyway, and never stops working in my life. And then He’ll remind me that He’s used to loving leaders who have trouble abandoning the illusion of control.

George Bingham

George Bingham

Currently serving as President of Key Life, George has been blessed by Steve Brown’s friendship and teaching for over 35 years, beginning as a member of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church […]

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