Influence is Better Than Control

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As I sat in the Philly airport earlier today waiting for my delayed flight to ASCD’s Leader To Leader Conference I followed the travails of colleague @JasonFlom. He was traveling to the same conference and he tweeted, “1st flight canceled. 2nd delayed. 3rd in jeopardy. And I’m still in Tallahassee!” It occurred to me that there is only so much we can control as administrators. When a plane arrives and departs is not within our control.

Control is a concept that often appears within reach. Yet, if we are certain of our ability to control, we will often miss the opportunities that come when we loosen our grip on controlling that situation or person. The wise administrator knows that influence carries more weight than control.

I cannot control the actions of others but I can influence their choices. I had a conversation yesterday with a teacher who worked years ago for an administrator (we’ll call him Charles) with superlative organizational abilities. When he developed Plan A he could immediately respond with Plan B if his first choice failed. He scheduled a tight school day and everyone knew his vision for the school and his/her part in it. Unfortunately, be it his nature or a conscious decision, Charles had difficulty treating all employees with respect. It’s not that he was intentionally mean, but with his need to control, he used people to fulfill his objectives. As a result, Charles was not a highly successful administrator.

I cannot control most of my circumstances either. We are busy people. In addition to our professional existence, some of us are in a phase of life where our children take up an enormous part of our energy, as we cart them around to games, school events, and music lessons, while helping them with homework, calming their natural fears, and helping them navigate friendships. Or, as in my case, we spend much of our energy guiding our teenage and adult children through college and career, not to mention finding ways to pay for higher education. There is so much on our plate that the fundamentals of life can’t help but be taken for granted. And then suddenly, everything changes and we lose control of circumstances.

One of my Twitter colleagues is Denise Legore, (@dlegore) the Principal of one of the elementary schools in Joplin, Missouri. As you know, her town was devastated by a massive tornado and she estimates 75% of the buildings in Joplin were destroyed or greatly damaged. Fortunately, her own building was not damaged at all but most of the other schools in Joplin were hit hard and their high school was demolished. ( I asked her during the school year if there was anything we could do to help and two nights later she wrote me back:

“Thanks Bill. This is surreal. The district is accepting monetary donations. We are committed to having summer school & then restart in 84 days.”

Denise has had to endure seeing her friends and colleagues lose much but she is thankful that her own house sustained no damage so she can be in a good position to help others. There is much work to do.  As she says, “Don’t come to Joplin w/o a pair of gloves and a shovel!” Somehow, we reach a “new normal” and we move on. We realize that we cannot control circumstances but we can control how we react to them.

If we want to change the world as administrators, we have to measure the level of control we really have over people and events. We must realize that real power comes in constructively supporting and influencing others, and yielding control to the very people on our team who will truly make a difference in the lives of our students.

“Control is not leadership; management is not leadership; leadership is leadership.” Dee Hock, Founder and CEO Emeritus, Visa.


12 comments for “Influence is Better Than Control

  1. July 22, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    The title of this post reminded me immediately of a line from Days of Thunder. (I know, it’s no Oscar-winner, but I was quite the Tom Cruise fan in my youth. 🙂

    “Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.”

    You’re absolutely right that our influence is more powerful than our control, and that the only control we truly have is over our own actions, in response to the actions of others and situations that arise.

    Thanks for this reminder!

    • July 23, 2011 at 3:33 am

      Thanks for the Tom Cruise memory Lyn! I remember a blog post you had a while back dealing with (I believe) illness within your family and your need to prioritize. Sometimes our jobs are like the race track but somehow we have to slow down, take deep breaths, treat everyone with respect, and deal with tough situations with grace. I have learned much from your writing my friend.

  2. July 22, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Exactly. Why is this such a hard lesson for leaders to learn?

    Efforts to control the thoughts and behaviors of other people frequently contaminate and derail their learning. This is just as true for adults as it is for students.

    The artful ability to influence, leverage, and motivate others is the mark of a leader. An insistence on controlling others is a leadership weakness.

    Thank you for this important post.

    • July 23, 2011 at 3:36 am


      Yes! “The artful ability to influence, leverage, and motivate others is the mark of a leader. An insistence on controlling others is a leadership weakness.” Your line is so powerful I had to repeat it. 🙂

      I find that leaders who try to control are generally those that have less self-confidence. This needs to be a theme in administration training courses. Not sure this can be taught. It may be a make or break skill.


  3. July 22, 2011 at 5:02 pm

    I find this article relates positively to the previous “10 steps to overcome self destruction.” Read both and use them as a one two punch. Fred

    PS: I just joined connected principals recently and I ahve come away wtih alot of helpful information both for my personal and professional lives. Thank you connected principals!

    • July 23, 2011 at 3:38 am

      Hi Fred:

      Yes, the two posts do link well-purely serendipitous! And…I agree CP is a major source of inspiration for me and always lands on my iPad’s Instapaper. Thanks for commenting.


  4. July 23, 2011 at 3:58 am

    Great post, Bill. “Worry about things you can control” is a message I try to send to my grade 8 students every year. Basically, you only control your own behaviour so make good choices and do what YOU know is right. The same goes for administrators/leaders. We’ll all make mistakes but by being in control of our own actions and decisions we will influence others.

    Thanks again for the post.

    • July 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm

      Hi Susan:

      I taught 8th graders for many years and you are right…they do need to keep to what they can control. Of course, they are always looking for something they can control 🙂


  5. July 23, 2011 at 8:27 am

    I couldn’t agree more with your post. I am an IT director, and I never know what the day is going to bring when I wake up in the morning – rolling with the punches is part of my job description!

    I think you are correct in that controlling leaders are often fundamentally insecure. They try to control people because they feel out of control. Unfortunately, because they are insecure, they do not have the self awareness to even recognize that they have a problem! I have known many a controlling leader who is absolutely convinced that they are not a controlling leader.

    I believe very strongly in hiring good people, empowering them and giving them the space they need to do great work. I try very hard to do this with my own staff, and never ceased to be amazed by their accomplishments.

    • July 23, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      HI Susan,

      Two things are always true in leadership: first, it’s all about the relationships you form and second, the most important job we do is hiring. You hit the nail on the head!


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