Illustration of drowning hand making peace sign
№ 9

The illusion of easy choices aka goodbye, control freak.

Reading time 5 minutes read
Neon Dream by Jr Korpa
No future without uncertainty. No advancement without loss of control. So instead of pretending the opposite, to say that life is simple and try to shove it into neat excel sheets and processes, we need to fall in love with messiness and understand that this is the backdrop for true leadership.

In the past, I oftentimes ran into people who were looking for easy choices. Whether people in leadership or not, they were hurrying along, looking for simple answers when there are none, in many different ways. Looking for even more information and data when asked for a decision. Spending a lot (like really a lot) of effort on building new frameworks of rules and guidelines. Sketch a very complicated organizational process that puts everyone in their right place. Once again starting an attempt of prescribing roles to their people or - my favorite - give another try at a general role definition sheet that tidily puts everyone’s responsibilities in a neat excel of bi-colored lines.
I get it - I also love having control. I can hardly tolerate letting other people write headlines on my slides. I cannot stand watching YouTube videos because I want to consume the content in my own pace and control, not that of some random influencer. I endure sleepless nights when somebody else is taking care of the group birthday present for a loved person and chooses really bad wrapping paper. But unfortunately, life is not simple and just pretending that you can control every aspect of it, is not going to work.

Leadership revolves around the future, sometimes the present, but very rarely about the past (aka predictable times)

First: Leadership revolves around the future, sometimes the present, but very rarely about the past. In today’s world (and I’m gonna spare you the VUCA talk), you will never know anything know for sure, and you will never be able to control everything. And still, you’re the person who is required to walk ahead, up front, into the fog. You’re not only expected to tolerate uncertainty, but create clarity for others in order to allow them to follow you.

Second: You’re stuck in ambiguity and caught in conflicts of interest. All. the. time.
Whether that is the clash between the motivations in your team and those of your boss, having to juggle profitable work with passion projects that your team would love to make. Or being trapped in delivering on multiple KPIs that come as a trade-off, a win-lose kind of situation.

The truth is: all of those things are bullshit, because in essence, they are attempts at drawing lines of responsibility.

So that’s when the control freak actions begin, the quest of searching for a magic potion that will simplify life and put it into neat forms without ambiguities and contradictions. The role definition sheet. The KPI framework that could win a Nobel prize in Mathematics. The organizational process that would need the Berlin Wall back to be sketched out in entirety. And the truth is: all of those things are bullshit, because in essence, they are attempts at drawing lines. Drawing lines in order to avoid responsibility for things of uncertainty. Things you cannot foreseen, tasks you have never done before, projects that are not in your control, deliverables that are usually done by other domains or teams, people you haven’t hired. In short: it’s about saving your ass.

Trying to control an uncertain environment, is impossible and a waste of time. Pretending that there are easy choices when there aren’t, sets you up for failure, because you will never be enough. Also, small reminder: you as a leader were hired and put into that role, exactly for you being able to handle it. Your job is not only to deal with this ambiguity, but to design with it. Your job is to actively create clarity even if there is none, so that your team can trust you in moving along with you. Your job is to communicate clearly when things couldn’t be more foggy. Your job is to make the decision that is impossible to make because all options suck. Your job is to take over responsibility for projects that you didn’t participate in. (Yes, that’s hard but that’s why you usually get paid more (among other things).)

The first step towards acting like a lead, is to let go the illusion of easy choices. To accept that you need to keep moving, acting, deciding despite not having full control.

  • Stop trying to draw up another definition sheet for roles, because you realize that there are already more definitions in this world than cat videos on the internet (and either of them suck). Instead have a real talk with people about what you expect of them in the upcoming months and encourage taking over responsibility in areas of their personal strengths, instead of just the ones that are highlighted in row C34.

  • Stop trying to build the mastermind KPI framework that justifies making egoistic decision and start doing what’s best for the company. Or choose what’s best for you, but then also deal with the reaction of your colleagues and teams for putting your own bonus on priority 1.

  • Stop postponing making that tough decision by claiming you first need all information and data. (There is no such thing as having all information, it’s like printing the internet). Instead get a good night’s sleep, take a one-hour walk where you mentally walk through the consequences, talk to trusted people about what they think about it, make the decision and be accountable for it. Oftentimes, the price of not deciding is much higher than making the worst decision. If you still feel insecure, try an experiment or prototype first.

  • Stop sketching out theoretical organizational processes that crash as soon as something unexpected happens. You work in real life, not a lab. Instead, talk to your team about the biggest pain points and eliminate those. Often, it’s not about creating more rules and guidelines, but less and trusting your team in finding the best way for doing things.+

In short: Be responsible. Take action. Don’t save your ass, but other people's trust in you and your sound mind. Do the right thing and don’t pretend not to know what it is. Kill your inner control freak or condemn it to YouTube. Let go the illusion of easy choices. Because that’s what leadership is about.

+Actually, it’s not advisable to do a big process analysis and evaluation also due to other reasons. I read on the weekend in this article that as soon as people understand the full way of how their company functions and how messed up it all is, many of them decide to leave for good ;)