you’re not the boss of me

When my son was five years old he was fascinated with “being in charge”. No surprise really because at five it seems like everyone is in charge of you. Even as we grow up I suspect we all want to be in control of our own destiny. This drive, this ambition is a good thing but any strength pushed too far becomes a weakness. Within every organization there are employees, managers, even senior managers getting in their own way – and getting in the company’s way. They spend their time wishing that they were in charge – in complete control. They are irritated by anything that gets in their way and dream of being able to lead unhindered. Why is this dangerous?

It ignores the practical reality that everyone reports to someone. Thinking that you can get promoted high enough to escape the scrutiny of others is fantastical nonsense. If they can’t see this obvious truth, what less apparent realities are they missing? What are they not doing while they are spending their time and energy in fantasyland?

A leader dreaming of being in complete control is a leader who wants their ideas and decisions to go unchecked by law, regulation, common sense, or basic manners. They seem to believe that they are completely right in all situations and should never be questioned, second guessed, or told “no.”

Leaders thinking they are universally right lack introspection and ignore/discredit any feedback that suggests they might be wrong. This is an assertive person who will make snap decisions that are often right, but they are unable to tell when they are wrong. They are also unable to lean from mistake or experience.

Because they believe they are always right, they rarely think through the potential consequences and downsides of a decision. Although they may have good ideas, implementation is often chaotic because they mistakenly believe that creating the idea was the hard part and executing the idea is easy. Likewise, they are continually frustrated by those around them who are unable to implement their ideas exactly as it exists in their minds, unhindered by reality.

The leader who wants to be completely in charge is someone only thinks about themselves rather than what is best for the company, the customer, the employees, or anyone else. They create teams, departments, and organizations whose success and glory is so centered on themselves that it dies when they are not there. This is in stark contrast to the leaders they try to create great teams, departments, and organizations that will thrive after the leader is gone (think petty dictatorships vs enduring democracies).

Unfortunately, these folks are often used to getting their way because others find it easier to give in than keep crashing against the wall of their closed-minded obstinance. This only reinforces the belief that they are right and if they stick to their guns they will prevail. All of these traits make them ferociously difficult to manager and downright painful to report to.

Sometimes this person will get in their own way so much that their career never moves forward and they spend their lives at the lowest levels, forever frustrated. Sometimes, this person will realize that they cannot work for others and start their own business or seek out jobs with maximum autonomy. And sometimes, this person will rise up through the organization, gaining considerable position and power through talent and hardwork, yet still crave more, more, more.

Again, I’m not referring to ambition, but the desire to have complete, unchecked control. So what’s to be done? As an HR pro, how do you help this person lead while staying within the boundaries of law, decency, and long-term success? How do you help them tap into their often considerable strengths while keeping them from creating anarchy and chaos? I’m leaving this open ended as I’d love to hear others’ ideas and experiences.

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