3 Ways to Respond to a Controlling Leader

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How should you respond to a leader who tries to control your every move? Ron Edmondson shares sage advice from his personal experience.

I have written a good deal recently about controlling leadership.

Most of my posts stem from current or past experience in leadership. Since I’ve been blogging on leadership, I have talked with dozens individuals in ministry or business who experience this type of leader. It impacts their personal leadership, as well as the health of their organization — and honestly, even their own personal health. Many younger leaders have told me they feel a controlling leader not only controls their work — but their career and their life.

And, the issue of controlling leadership seems to be more in discussion now than ever in my leadership career. And, that’s true in the church also. I hear almost weekly about a senior pastor who controls every decision in the church — and most of the time the staff culture is very unhealthy — even toxic.

One theory I have is that younger leaders want a voice at the table early in their leadership. They are intersecting with seasoned leaders who are trying to hold on to power. I get that. But, how should a younger leader respond?

I previously wrote a post about “leading up“. Although it addresses a more senior leader who may not be giving a younger leader a seat at the table — not one who is necessarily a controlling leader. But, some of those principles apply here also. For example, I do think it’s important to respect a leadership position — even controlling leadership — especially if you intend to continue in the position.

Controlling leadership appears to be a more difficult issue, however. A leader who attempts to control everything within his or her realm is much harder to influence.

So, here is my answer when I’m asked how to respond — long-term at least — to a controlling leader. You basically have three options, in my opinion. These three are summaries — and there are probably multiple points under each one — but three and no more.

Here are 3 ways you can respond to a controlling leader:

Quit

I have had people challenge me that winners never quit, but I disagree. If you were placed in a position by a call of God, this may not be an option until God releases you — and I personally would consider the other two options before considering this option — but sometimes the best thing for the individual and the organization is to make a fresh start. And, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that if that is indeed the only option. It should not be a rash or a vindictive decision, you should attempt to leave on the best terms possible, but you simply may not mesh with this particular leadership style. And, to be true to yourself and have integrity in your loyalty you may have to seek another environment that allows you to better grow as a leader and person. I have seen too many people stay too long. And, sometimes they stay for all the wrong reasons. It could be fear, a false sense of loyalty or just because they think they have no other options. It injures them, the rest of the team, and interrupts the progress towards a vision that hopefully is bigger than any one person.

Compromise

You can learn to live with what you’ve got in a leader. There are seasons where you have no choice. You can’t find anything new and you need the work. (Sometimes we call those seasons — life.) There are also times God has placed you where you are for a reason. You’ll learn a lot from the situation — even with a controlling leader. If nothing more, you can use the time to reinforce how you will someday lead differently. If you compromise — if you stay — you should remain respectful, even loyal. You should do your best work, have a positive attitude towards others, and attempt to make life better for those around you. That’s the right thing to do. We don’t get an excuse from Biblical principles because we don’t agree with the leadership. If you can’t, one of the other options should be your choice, in my opinion.

Collaborate

This is almost always the best option. Most leaders — even controlling leaders — have areas in which they are willing to admit they need help. Much of their willingness to do so will be based on the degree of trust placed in others or how important an issue is to them personally. Working to build a relationship of trust and seeking common ground on issues allows some people to excel under a controlling leader. If the leader sees you not as a threat, but as a compliment to their leadership, they may be more willing to invite your input.

To get there will require a risk on your part. You’ll have to gracefully challenge the controlling leadership. Like it or not, most complex issues do not disappear on their own. A good question to ask yourself: “Will I be content if this environment continues for the next year or longer?” Also, “Do I think it’s time to move on to something else?” If the answer to both questions is no, then the best option may be to challenge the controlling leadership — attempting to get to some collaborative work — where you can do meaningful work for which you feel valued — and less controlled. It should be noted that you can’t challenge anyone daily, so a challenge like this should be planned, considerate, and infrequent, but it may be this is the best option or the only one with which you can live. And, it may take one person to introduce change to the rest of the organization. (In my next post, I’ll get more specific with how to do this type challenge.)

Let me offer this closing reminder:

Every situation is unique, so no post can answer your specific situation. These are very broad, general responses. Your response may fit someone between one of them (probably between the second and third.) One thing that all situations share, however, is that regardless of how one responds, each of us have an obligation to be humble, kind, gracious people. In either of these three steps we should behave likewise. Also, remember that your response to a controlling leader often determines his or her response. Momma always said “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” The Bible says it another way…”A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1)

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