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AAL Newsletter

Leadership and Control

by Rob Jenkins, M.A.

A new manager takes over a department or division and immediately begins issuing edicts, disbanding committees, replacing chairs, and squelching the inevitable dissent—through heavy-handed means, if necessary. In another area, a new manager comes in and right away starts working to build consensus, listening to those who have been there longer and seeking to understand the issues before making any drastic decisions.

How can two people in such similar situations take such radically divergent approaches?

One of the most misunderstood aspects of management, I believe—especially in a higher education setting—is the difference between leadership and control. Sadly, too many academic department chairs, deans, and vice presidents are focused primarily on controlling the people and circumstances around them rather than on providing actual leadership to their areas. And ironically enough, these are often the same individuals who, as faculty members, squawked the loudest when they felt that their managers were too authoritarian. Obviously they’ve never been taught, either by example or by any other means, the qualities that make a good leader.

True leadership requires humility, a willingness to listen, to admit that others might know more about a given area or situation, to acknowledge that one might actually be wrong on occasion. Control, on the other hand, is prideful and arrogant, seeking to have its own way and make others conform to its vision. An effective leader listens more than speaks, whispers more than shouts, apologizes more than blames.

True leadership seeks to serve rather than to be served. History and religious tradition provide many examples of such leaders, from Ghandi to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., from Socrates to Jesus Christ, who famously taught that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Leaders understand that one of their most important functions—perhaps THE most important—is to help the people they lead reach their full potential, and not to exploit those people for their own gain, in order to make themselves look good, or advance their own careers. That’s what control does.

Ultimately, leadership is really all about trust. The best leaders demonstrate trust in those around them, which is the opposite of control because it involves a great deal of letting go and no small amount of self-effacement, which brings us back to humility. Great leaders are also trustworthy themselves, meaning that they tell the truth, follow through on what they say they’re going to do, and don’t hesitate to go to the mat in defense of what they believe is right. Control tends to be cynical, calculating, and inconsistent.

The great paradox of leadership is that by letting go, we ultimately gain mastery over our situations, together with our colleagues; whereas, by attempting to clamp down, we merely invite passive aggressive resistance, if not outright mutiny, which in the end leads to chaos. This is a true and time-honored principle that all great leaders seem to understand intuitively, and one that the control freaks can never seem to grasp.

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