Loss of Control – A CEO’s Worst Nightmare

Written by on December 16, 2015

Jason M. Lemkin, CEO/co-founder of EchoSign (acquired by Adobe), made an interesting remark: “You cannot let anyone see you look like you are losing control. Ever. Once they see that, they will lose faith.” But it happens so frequently; we’re confronted by situations and events that threaten to shake our hold on our organizations. The fear of losing control can cloud our judgment or cause us to act impulsively. How can leaders keep this “worst nightmare” from guiding their decisions?

Are You Losing Control?

Let’s say you, as a CEO, decide to acquire a company or to bring in a partner. This may shift the balance of power in your organization – and that can be a big deterrent to making a fully informed, clear decision.

In today’s business world, there is a huge emphasis on control, accountability, and ensuring you have the proper oversight mechanisms in place. Any type of situation that brings a new culture into the organization or otherwise causes you to feel a loss of control can be incredibly uncomfortable for a CEO.

Go Back to Your Strategy

In times like this, it is important to go back to the beginning and ask: “Is acquiring this company, or sharing this accountability, or investing in this particular skill set going to fit with our strategy? Is it going to move us forward? Will it help us achieve our objectives?”

If the answers are “Yes,” it is likely the right decision to make – even though it may personally feel like a loss. Remember, though, usually when we lose something, we gain something else. Giving up a little control may help you take advantage of an opportunity that wouldn’t be open to you otherwise.

The challenge for CEOs is that the pace of work is so frantic. You often feel pressured to move rapidly, without taking the time to think or reflect. There are two extremes here: one is rushing to action without any thought or reflection. The other is taking so long to gather data and deliberate that you miss the opportunity altogether. It is important to position yourself in the middle: gathering the information you need and acting in a timely manner.

In other words, what’s the right amount of deliberation so you don’t hesitate but neither do you act rashly? It can be a tough balance to strike, but one that is essential for effective leadership.

Adaptive Leadership

An approach that can help you find and maintain this balance is “adaptive leadership.” Developed by Ron Heifetz (Practicing Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Techniques for Changing Your Organization and the World), it is a set of strategies you can use to make decisions, take smart risks, and lead your people through “deep” change. At the core is adaptability; you need to adapt and flex to meet new challenges.

From a leadership perspective, it’s about thinking experimentally. It’s possible this course of action is right; it’s possible it’s wrong. An experimental mindset allows you to say, “Based on what I know today, this is what I think the best decision is. It may be brilliant – it may be completely wrong. Is the risk of it being completely wrong manageable for me?”

As a leader, you’re often confronted with questions that have no prescribed answers. With adaptive leadership, you allow yourself to ask: is this the right choice for the organization? Does it fit with our strategy? Even if it feels like a loss to me, could it be a gain for us? Those are the questions that should guide decision-making; not the fear of losing control.