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relinquishing control

The traditional conception of leadership has the leader as the ‘hero’, standing boldly at the front of those who wish to be led, and possessing common traits of intelligence, drive, vision and integrity. Modern leadership theories see leadership as a more subtle activity, built less on authority and control, and more on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, influence and political skill.

During my MBA study of systems thinking and adaptive leadership , I have learnt the value of suppressing my reflexive urge to exert authority, and the value of relinquishing control of a situation.

Adaptive leadership theorists Heifetz and Linsky provide a cautionary tale about ‘authority’ and its intoxicating and self-fulfilling properties; how it can ‘go to one’s head’ and corrupt minds (Heifetz and Linsky, p.91). Systems thinker Donella Meadows is also wary of authority and the limitations it brings; she urges us to break out of our default modes, to ‘expose our mental models to the open air’, to ‘celebrate complexity’ and to ‘stay humble, stay a learner’.

My leadership style has been shaped by a 12-year career in the Australian Army and formal management and leadership training at the Australian Defence Force Academy and the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

The military leans heavily on ‘authority’ and command leadership, with an emphasis on completing the ‘task’ at all costs. And with good reason. Successfully seizing an enemy objective whilst under machine gun fire requires strong command leadership and adherence to orders – if people don’t do as they’re told, there can be dire consequences.

But the fact is that those situations are actually quite few and far between in military life (and even less so in wider society). Whilst a command style of leadership is appropriate in the heat of battle, it is less so for most other situations in the military. In this way, military officers often lean on ‘authority’ as their default form of legitimacy, rather than practising ‘leadership’ as Heifetz and Linsky profess it to be.

Like many Army officers, my natural instinct is to take control and ‘fix’ things when I perceive that there is a lack of clarity or purpose. This can sometimes isolate people and put them offside, because I can come across as domineering. As Heifetz and Linsky point out:

Perhaps more than any other institution, the military prepares people to operate in the midst of chaos and to exercise raw power to restore order. It tends to attract people who have a need for control and in fact prepares them to take control. (Heifetz and Linsky, p.91)

Heifetz and Linsky go on to say:

If you are in a newly formed group struggling to organise itself and a military person is present, you may find that the military person steps forward with the skill, and the need, to get things moving. (Heifetz and Linsky, p.91)

This regularly rings true with my academic syndicate work – I do step forward and I do attempt to get things moving. But this can sometimes be a bad thing:

Because [military people] are trained to suppress chaos and maintain order, the military may also go too far, suppressing the diversity of views needed to make progress…Containing conflict and imposing order may create some of the conditions for progress, but they are not progress itself. (Heifetz and Linsky, p.91)


Meadows would agree: she would say that an interventionist approach fails to ‘celebrate complexity’; it fails to ‘expand the time horizons’ that would facilitate a more reasoned and holistic solution; it fails to get the ‘beat of the system’ and to ‘expose mental models to the light of day’, potentially stymieing a more creative and effective solution that ‘goes for the good of the whole’ (Meadows, Ch.7).

There is a time and a place for command leadership, but the vast majority of everyday leadership situations call for a very different approach – one that doesn’t lean on authority to get things done.

My MBA studies have made me aware of my tendency to take control and the limitations associated with imposing one’s will on a group. I am now more aware of the potential to stifle the free exchange of ideas and have deliberately chosen to be more circumspect in recent group situations.


Heifetz, R.A. and Linsky, M (2002). Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Harvard Business Review Press

Meadows, D. (2008), Thinking in Systems: A Primer, Chelsea Green Publishing

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