What is Control? Do Leaders Have It?

Control is probably an ‘essentially contested’ concept – which is to say that not only does it mean many different things to different people, these meanings are grounded in concepts of rationality, human communities and practices, which may make it impossible for proponents of different meanings to really communicate with each other.

But we can try! We tend to want to talk about one form of control as bad, evil, mechanistic, crushing. This is the mindset which systems thinkers sometimes liken to being trained to throw stones – reductionist control. If you’re good enough at it, and you know the weight of the stone, strength of the wind etc, you can predict where the stone will land. But if you’re suddenly presented with complexity, in the form of a live bird, this nasty sort of control can only think about applying known thinking. So you make the live bird more like a stone, which prevents the nasty habit it has of behaving unpredictably when thrown. It does lose certain essential, birdlike qualities – but it becomes as predictable as a rock (because, now, it’s much more like a rock… or potentially tied to it).

Then there’s another type of control, which we desperately want – a control which is somehow creative or enabling. Another way of putting this is the distinction of two types of power in Scandinavian or Germanic languages (which I learned from Jonathan Horwitz, a very good teacher). So you have macht, or might, or power over. And kraft or the power to create, power with.

So forget about arguing over words, if you can. What do we want control to mean?

I bring it down to two other words – responsibility, and constraints. I don’t think you can have freedom, or creativity, without them.

Organisational leaders might not have as much control as they think (sometimes I work with chief executives who are not amongst the most influential in their organisations). But they absolutely do have responsibility. For me, that responsibility comes down to accepting that the results that come out from their behaviours and the way the organisation affects people – and peoples’ response to those things – are the results they have created. If you really want to lead, first find out what you are responsible for, the actual results. If you can deal with that – confront yourself with that – you’ve made the first step. If you can learn from it and try to change, you’re on the way.

And constraints. In any organisation, it’s about giving people clear boundaries to their work and freedom within those boundaries. There’s room for improvisation and instant variation in these constraints, once you’re in the swing of it – but freedom without these constraints, freedom which doesn’t take account of experience, capability, relationships with others, knowledge of the work to be done – well, that’s meaningless. Note that this absolutely doesn’t rule out ‘self-organisation’, collective organisation – but it reveals that any of these, to be effective, must have a control system embedded somewhere – in collective agreement, in rules and procedures, or even in the work itself. And, if leadership is to be meaningful, the leader has to accept responsibility for the emergent outcomes, for the experience of the people in the organisation and outside the organisation, for the whole thing.

Creativity and innovation, like freedom and liberty, depend not upon the soft pedalling of organisation, but upon the development of institutions with the kind of constraint and opportunities that can enable us to live and work together harmoniously, effectively and creatively.
— Elliott Jacques

You can listen to the HumanCurrent podcast here and don't forget to subscribe in iTunes. This blog was written by recent guest, systems thinker, and business evolutionary, Benjamin Taylor. Benjamin is a Managing Partner at RedQuadrant, Chief Executive at The Public Service Transformation Academy, and a non-executive Director at SCiO. He is a frequent contributor on model.report, an online forum for system thinkers, and a moderator on the Linkedin group System Thinking Network.