Influence is Better Than Control

As I sat in the Philly airport earlier a couple of weeks ago 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 recently 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.

This was cross-posted on Connected Principals and ASCD Edge. Portions of this post were included in an earlier post on Principal Reflections. 

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