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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

Losing Leadership Control In The Pursuit of Gaining More

Updated: Aug 15, 2019

Our airplane was at low altitude, skirting snow-covered mountainous ranges, cloaked in heavy mist, as it threaded its way into a long-neglected airport, when we suddenly realized that the pilot and co-pilot were in the rear of the plane talking with the cabin crew........

Actually, this is not true! We were not in the air in stormy conditions at all, but in an executive education classroom at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland, with three corporate executive teams who were about to present their strategic plans to the four key decision-makers on the board of the private equity firm that owned them the following morning, and these were going to be very difficult presentations! And, while there was no pilot or co-pilot hanging out with the flight attendants, there was, in fact, myself, as Professor and Program Director, and my Program Manager, a former McKinsey consultant, and we were truly locked-out of their team rooms during the penultimate moments of a week-long preparation for the board presentations. At that moment, when everything was riding on what was going on in these three rooms that we were forbidden to enter, I knew that we were going to have a big success!

Everything that we had hoped for was happening. The teams and their coaches no longer needed our insights, advice or prodding. After working all week on their strategic choices and how they intended to execute them, they knew much more than we did and had sufficient confidence to dispense with us and do it themselves. Could any other outcome have been as satisfying? We had made ourselves unnecessary! At that very moment of rejection, while I realized that being asked to leave them alone was unusual, I also knew that we had accomplished all of what executive education promises: we had provided bright, experienced managers with the tools and frameworks, and confidence, that would allow them to leverage their knowledge effectively to achieve their objectives. Our job was done, leaving my Program Manager and myself the luxury of a quiet cup of coffee together on the fringes of the real action. And, in fact, on the very next morning the three teams -- one of the largest energy distributors in the world, a major player in global construction and the largest food retailer in a major Latin American market -- each succeeded in their presentations well-beyond what we, or they, had hoped for. It was a leaderless victory; the best kind!

My good friend Bertrand Piccard, leader of the Solar Impulse team that circled the planet last year without relying on fossil fuel, and who before that was leader of the two man team that became the first to circle the earth in a balloon, speaks about being "much more confidently aware, and more creative, despite being essentially lost for five days over the Atlantic." How is it possible to gain confidence while losing control? How is it possible to beat the likes of Virgin's Richard Branson, in highly-pitched competition, if you're not in control? After all, Jim Collins, the author of the iconic management book Good toGreat, tells us that it is "disciplined people --> disciplined thought --> disciplined action" that leads to "great" rather than "good" performance, yet here were our participants throwing-off the formal signs of "discipline" and taking control of their own fortunes. Were we truly losing control? I don't think so, not if you learn to lose control in an appropriate and effective fashion.  At that point, the most liberating thing that we could do was to trust the teams to allow the processes to guide them in applying their own insights and experiences. Far from being out of control, this whole situation was very much "under control"; but the control was theirs not ours.

Great impromptu performances in the face of the unknown will be an increasingly important attribute of successful managerial practice in the 21st century; and increasingly this means that it will be impossible to maintain control throughout, if only because we won't know what to control in advance. However, it is possible to lose control while still keeping it at the same time -- if you define what control you are willing to give up, and what control you cannot relinquish. After all, if you are fortunate enough to be working with great talent, you will want to give-up sufficient control so that that talent can be as good as their promise suggests. At the same time, as a "formal" leader, you are still responsible for achieving the project's objectives. Think of this as drawing a box around the project: the boundaries of the box determine who owns what. Inside the box are challenges for your talented team to tackle; in any way their wish. Outside the box is your area of responsibility; it defines the parameters of success and organizational ownership. Inside the box is where you should choose to lose control, not outside. This allows you to retain complete control over the objectives, while ceding absolute freedom to the team in how they choose to deploy their talent.

Contradictory? Not really, but not easy either.

Effectively losing control requires two elements: 1. clarity of vision, so that everyone understands, explicitly and precisely, what vision of the project is; and 2. sufficient self-confidence on the part of the leader to let control within the box. This is exactly what we did with these three teams, and in the process they became the stars of the show, not us; which is how it should turn out! After all, when they leave IMD, it is their show, not ours, and it is for real. So, the next time you see things getting out of control, be it in a classroom or on a worksite, think twice before you draw conclusions about what is really going on, and who's in charge?

Originally posted on "Dispatches From The Front-Lines of Executive Development," February 22, 2011

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