Are You Really in Control?

“I want to remain in control.” “Why would I want to give up control?” “But I would be giving up control.”

I often hear these statements – and their derivatives, like “I’d rather be a big fish in a small pond” – from people who work alone or are the “boss” at smaller companies and who are concerned about joining larger endeavors because they believe they will not have as much “control” if they do. I understand that perspective, especially because I once had it myself, but I see things differently now.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with working alone or at a smaller company. Many people do so quite successfully. (Actually, most people in this country work at smaller companies.) It’s just this idea of “control” that I question.

You see, I also thought I was giving up “control” when, in 2011, my company and I decided to join a larger partnership. Many years later, I now believe that “control” is largely just a matter of perception.

When I was the CEO of a small, fully independent company, I certainly thought I was in “control.” After all, I stood alone at the top of the organizational chart. Yet, back then, I had far fewer team members, clients, and business partners. In that sense, the people on whom our company and I relied comprised a relatively small set of people – and each one of them knowingly or unknowingly had that much more power over our company and me. Who was really in control? Sure, I had the role and title of CEO, but almost everyone I worked with or for had the power to disassociate themselves from us for any reason and, in so doing, adversely impact our company and me personally.

Then there was the fact that those people also relied on me, as the CEO, to single-handedly make good decisions for the company. I did not have a broad leadership team around me to challenge me constantly and collaborate with me to make the best possible decisions. Talk about pressure! And I felt every bit of it. I labored over my decisions because there were few others to share my burden, and – ironically – I lost control of my daily schedule because I had so little support.

Today, I’m one of many leaders of a substantially larger company. I am still the CEO, but I share leadership responsibilities with several other empowered leaders. We have many team members, clients, and business partners, and while they are all important to us, they each have less power over me and our company. My decisions are now run through a gauntlet of other decision makers who both challenge me and collaborate with me so that, together, we make better decisions and achieve better outcomes.

So, did I have more control when I was the CEO of a smaller company, or do I have more control now? Well, the answer depends on what “control” means. If “control” means being able to tell other people what to do without much challenge from them or anyone else, then yes, I had more control when I was the CEO of a smaller company. If, however, “control” means being able to work with and for a broader, more diverse set of people and achieve greater outcomes that can only be achieved together, then I have more control now. If control means having more stability and certainty, then I have more control now. It is a different kind of control though. Now I have more control over living the life I want to live, which, for me, includes a life of contribution and significance that requires a bit more interdependence and a bit less independence.

I realize, of course, that everything you just read reflects my personal perspective and nothing more. I mainly just want others to know that, at least for one person, “control” is a matter of perspective and perception. In my opinion, none of us are ever fully in control of our work or, for that matter, our destiny. The world is far too complex for such generalizations – and far too uncontrollable.

Read the blog here.