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7 Warning Signs You May Be a Controlling Leader

I regularly talk to young leaders through my blog and many of them feel they are working for a controlling leader.

In a previous post I talked about the 3 results of controlling leadership. It is a prevalent enough issue in leadership that I decided to cover it in my book The Mythical Leader. 

In full disclosure, one of my top strengths on the StrengthsFinder assessment is COMMAND. I’ll take over if no one else in the room will — so some of the young leaders on my team may have felt that way about me at times. I have to discipline myself not to be a controlling leader.

But it’s a personal value for me not to be one, so I consistently try to evaluate my leadership. (And I’ve often let teams I lead evaluate me.) And, also granted, as I’ve posted previously, I believe there are some things a leader needs to control — especially early in a leadership position. For example, I controlled (or micro-managed) the hiring of key staff members during my beginning years of church revitalization. We were changing a culture. I was building a team — one I didn’t have to control.

The odd thing I find is that many controlling leaders never really know they are one. They may actually even believe they are being good leaders — simply making sure things go well for the organization.

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts about this issue, controlling leaders are ever present in the church.

So, maybe if you’re reading this, you are still wondering if you might be a controlling leader. Or if you work for one.

7 warning signs that you may be a controlling leader:

Your team struggles to share new ideas.

Are people sheepish around you when they have an idea that may be different from yours? Do they start apologizing prior to approaching you with a new idea? Do they appear timid, fearful, even reluctant to share a thought? Is there a culture of fear?

This may be on them — it might be on you as a leader.

You think you’re wonderful.

I don’t mean this to be funny. When a leader is in the control position, because of their own confidence, they can often feel everyone approves of all they are doing.

A controlling leader may not really know how people feel about them. They assume everyone approve of their leadership.

You always know you’re right.

Because you are — right?

If you never question your own judgment or if you never even think you need to get other’s opinions on your ideas then you might be a controlling leader.

You control information.

Do you enjoy keeping others from having less information than you have? Do you like to be in the power position when information is power? (And it always is.)

If you control the information you’ll almost always control what is done with the information. And you just might be a controlling leader.

You are part of every decision.

Do you think you should be involved in making all the decisions your church or organization makes? Seriously. Be honest. A controlling leader can’t stand when they weren’t part of making the decision — especially if it proves to be a good one — or if people start getting credit for something in which they had no part.

If you still can’t decide if you’re a controlling leader, use this as a scenario and judge for yourself how you would feel: The decision is made. It’s genius. Everyone applauds. You’re on the sidelines. How do you feel now?

You can’t let go of the reins.

Do you fear others being in control of a project? Does it make you nervous? Do you feel the need to continually step back in and check on things?

I’m not suggesting a leader delegates and disappears. That’s not good leadership either. But if you can never let someone truly be the primary leader of  a task – if you aren’t sometimes the one following – you might be a controlling leader.

You ARE the final authority — on every decision. 

Think for just a minute about the decisions made in the organization in the last year — or even the last month. Did you have to sign-off on all of them? Were there any significant decisions made that you weren’t a part of making?

Again, be honest.

Have you ever worked for a controlling leader? Are you one? How would your team answer these questions about you?

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Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

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Join the discussion 42 Comments

  • damianwfoster says:

    Interesting article, thanks.

    I recently wrote an article including 8 must follow rules for great leaders, that you may find helpful…

  • andrew says:

    A church closed down a tract ministry that delivered 75,000 Gospel messages a year.I asked them to consider continuing this ministry.They basically wrote me off and disrespectfully accused me of judging .When you shut down the word of God that to me is sin.

  • @5feet20 says:

    Ron, great post. I worked for the poster-child for controlling leaders about 8 years ago. He told us (his leadership team) that our only job was to make him look good. Because of his tyrannical (is that a word?) tendencies, our corporate mission statement basically changed to "do whatever it takes to make our boss happy." While this was not good for the organization, this is exactly what our boss wanted.

    On his first day with our company, he handed us all a sheet of paper with the 21 rules of XYZ (his initials). We needed to follow these rules in order to remain employed. We joked that Moses gave us 10 commandments but our boss needed 21!

    I remember one meeting where we were presenting to our home office. He was sitting beside me and he told me before the meeting that if he was hitting my leg with his that was a signal that I was not allowed to talk. Needless to say, my leg was bruised from being hit so many times. This is just a small fraction of what happened under his leadership.

    In another situation, his office became too warm. Rather than turn the thermostat down, he ripped it off the wall and threw it against the wall. No control issues here!

    While this was the most horrific, unhealthy work situation I have ever seen or heard of, I am incredibly thankful that God brought this guy into my life. First of all, he taught me lots…mostly what not to do. Secondly, it led to me writing "Bleedership, Biblical First-Aid for Leaders" in which I contrast my boss' leadership style with that of some key Biblical leaders. As a result of that, the trajectory of my life has been changed drastically and I'm not sure I'd have the opportunity to serve leaders the way I do now.

    Thanks again for your post.

    Blessings to you!

    Jim Lange

    • ronedmondson says:

      Good real-life story to help us understand this. Very true, we learn from the bad and the good.

  • Paul says:

    The epistles of Peter, and especially those of Paul instruct a pastor (elder) in how to lead the "flock of God", and what kind of person he should be. While they are not to be "lords over God's heritage", they are instructed to exhort and rebuke with all longsuffering and doctrine". They are to meekly "instruct those who oppose themselves". They are to love the sheep and give themselves for them. The best pastor's manual is I and II Timothy and Titus.

    There are selfish and abusive church leaders who do great damage to God's people. However, a pastor is not a whimp with nothing to do but conduct funerals, visit the sick, and preach a little sermonette on Sunday. His postition is Divinely ordained for the "perfecting of the saints", and their protection from false teachings and moral corruption. To fulfilll his ministry, he will sometimes appear intrusive. What a great responsibilty he has. Pray for your pastor, hold up his hands, love and honor him for the "work's sake" as the N.T. instructs.

    • ronedmondson says:

      Thank you. Good word.

    • truthdetector142 says:

      "Elder" and "pastor" are simply not synonymous. The NT says basically nothing about pastors, the word shows up once in the singular in Eph 4 without any explanation as to the role involved. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that it is not the position of CEO-type influence that we have created, because such a position is reserved for Jesus alone. We desperately need to stop looking for great leaders in the church and recognize the true biblical leaders–the ones who are already humbly serving, leading exclusively by example, never by dictat, never seeking titles or rank or any form of authority that doesn't come from the acknowledgement by others that this is a person whom I want to emulate in Christ. We must understand that no man can be a covering, Jesus is our covering, and we are to submit one to another out of reverence for Him. All else is a lie. As long as we continue to create these unbiblical leadership positions in our churches, these roles that do not exist in the NT and that were explicitly condemned by Jesus, we will continue to attract the very sort of NPDs and sociopaths than Mr. Edmonson warns us about in this post.

  • @WOLCharlie says:

    Good thoughts here, Ron. Perhaps not an indicator of a controlling leader but one of the leaders in our organization is often VERY quick to cut me off and finish my sentences for me. Aside from being childish at best and extremely rude at worst, this is one of the most annoying traits I find in people in leadership.

    Thanks again, Ron.

  • Jeremy Long says:

    I used to be under some of the leadership like that a few years ago, Ron!!! I wonder how I would be if I was in a leadership role and it scares me. I just don't the leadership skills sometimes but I have to bite the bullet on decisions that I make whether it makes a great or negative impact.

    I hope that if I am in a leadership that I do not make decisions and I have the final decision. I want to make sure that the decisions I make are in agreement with everyone on the team and everyone feels like this is the right decision.

  • Josh

    Also if you share ideas many times they are pushed aside and show up later as their idea!

  • Dorothy says:

    Another sign of a controlling leader is that every new idea is met with some sort of negative response.
    Oh, yes – and such leaders are often passive-aggressive.

  • Michael is right about the scapegoat, but I think that a "whipping boy" is more accurate. Every controlling leader has one. Co-dependent is another synonym. Great post.

  • Michael says:

    This is very true, I see this in the work place daily on a regular bases…controlling people like to minimize the gifts and talents of others, they will also try and twist the truth about you and your leadership…when they make a big mistake they seek a scapegoat to take the fall…one of the observations I have noticed about controlling people is they will "reap what they sow", they cannot control their tongue and out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks…the most destructive trait I have observed personally is that controlling people can never and I mean never have enough power and influence…they always desire MORE…and they will do anything to have it!

  • More signs: You always denounce and/or threaten anyone who has the audacity to disagree with you. You have absolutely no accountability to anyone, and surround yourself with people who would never dare to question you.

  • JP Harris says:

    Thanks for the post. Regrettably I identify with a few of the seven. I think when I am controlling it is because I want to feel significant. I want my opinion to matter. I want to be the one with the "winning" idea. I want to be a better leader and am trying to be more aware of my controlling tendencies, and am trying to practice better leadership, even though I am not there on the inside.

  • Brad Harmon says:

    You've really got me thinking about your first point. I don't think I would ever notice this. If I did, I'm not sure I would make this connection. It makes perfect sense now that you've pointed it out, and it will be something I pay much closer attention to in the future.

  • Berh Byler says:

    Am I blind or is number seven missing?

  • Chari says:

    I'm positive the pastor at the church I use to attend has control issues. I was told I could no longer attend the church because of unforgiveness, suspicion, pride and an unwillingness to submit to scriptural authority. I know you aren't aware of the details, but in the past 5 years, the church has gone from 50 teens and about 20 children on a Wednesday night to no Wednesday night program at all. The Sunday morning church service has gone from about 40 to a mere 12. I continue to believe that God has a purpose and a plan in the whole situation. Unfortunately, people in leadership don't always realize the enormous affect they have on the lives of others. Thank you for writing about such a delicate yet much needed subject.

  • Kelly says:

    I would also add that you might be a controlling leader if you find yourself contemplating (or even doing) things that are deceptive, underhanded or immoral in order to control the behavior of others. This includes things like gossip, slander, speaking harshly or in obvious anger to the person or to others about the person, etc.

    Paying attention to our inner dialogues concerning those who follow us can give us clues as to what kind of leader we are. Even if we never say it out loud, thinking of church or board members predominantly in negative terms is a sign that we are not handling our leadership well. Even truly difficult people need to be led, not controlled.

    I see this in my parenting, w/my 16 yr old daughter. When we are going thru rough patches, if I find myself beginning to think of her in terms of her negative attitudes only, then I know that I am abdicating my leadership position. I can only lead her into respect, honor and love by walking that way myself. I can't excuse my negativity just because she is being difficult, as I have to remember that her negativity may be triggered by my being difficult, in her eyes.