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Leaders and the Illusion of Control December 20, 2012

Posted by Tim Rodgers in Management & leadership, Organizational dynamics.
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I’ve just finished Anne Applebaum’s excellent book Iron Curtain about the systematic efforts by Soviet-sponsored communist governments in the post-WWII period in Germany, Poland, and Hungary to eliminate opposition, collectivize the economy, and generally create a new society. The local leaders of these countries were guided by their interpretation of Marxist-Leninist principles and the contemporary model provided by the USSR, with guidance and direct orders from Moscow, often approved personally by Stalin (at least up until his death in 1953).

Despite each government’s aggressive efforts to stamp out all institutions and businesses that were not approved by the state, the people of these countries retained a strong desire to assert themselves economically, spiritually, and socially. The communist party leadership believed they could raise the awareness of the working class and mold the young minds of the next generation, but ultimately all of these regimes collapsed in the late 1980s.

I think there’s a lesson here for business managers and leaders. Certainly few modern managers think of themselves as totalitarian dictators, but to some degree we all try to exert some kind of control over our teams. On a group level we guide the team toward a business objective, and on an individual level we try to modify or influence the behavior of subordinates. But, how much control do we really have? Can we really move people to a place where they don’t want to go?

Leaders need to take the time to understand the motives and interests of the individuals they’re trying to lead, and use those as an energy source to keep things moving in the desired direction. People are much more likely to support change and achieve organizational objectives when they perceive some alignment with their own personal values and goals. If that alignment is missing, then your ability to control outcomes is limited and illusory, regardless of your positional power.

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