Leading Ethically and The Control Trap


By Linda Fisher Thornton

Why is controlling leadership so harmful in organizations? There are a number of powerful reasons that have ethical implications:

1. Controlling leadership generates stress and fear

2. Controlling leadership reduces productivity, innovation and engagement

3. Controlling leadership takes the meaning and fun out of doing a job

4. Controlling leadership does not consider or respect employees’ knowledge and abilities

5. Controlling leadership creates a toxic work environment and a low-trust culture

People who are fearful and stressed cannot do their best work. Controlling leadership violates many of the principles of ethical leadership. What is the control trap? When a leader tries to control the actions of employees to make sure that they “do it right,” that controlling behavior takes away their natural ability to do good work. 

Here are some ways that we can bring out the best in our people and honor what they know how to do:

  • Extend Trust – We need to let people know that we trust them to do good work 
  • Remove Barriers – We need to remove barriers to effective work (even if we are part of the problem!)
  • Support  Interests – Ask people what they most want to learn and consider that when assigning projects

“A leader is not an administrator who loves to run others, but someone who carries water for his people so that they can get on with their jobs.” — Robert Townsend

Good performance is not something that you can control – but you can release it by the way that you choose to lead.


For more, see Linda’s book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2013 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. First, I always considered ‘controlling’ and ‘leadership’ an oxymoron. You cannot lead by controling. You can manage by controlling. Leadership implies trust.
    Second, the main reason why the controlling traps managers is that there see,ms to be never enough of control. New controls seem like an answer for every problem, specifically the problem of a non-performing control.
    Finally, control kills companies because it is expensive. It is expensive to add layers of controls to layers of control, to manage managers, to design procedures to design procedures. Eventually, overheads eat up profits. Unless the company is a monopoly, the market does the rest.
    Trust is lean, inexpensive and swift. Plus, it is good for our health.


  2. Linda,
    Outside my window now is a young Beech tree with a Lark in it’s uppermost delicate branches the leaves are pale and small I can see the difference from yesterday morning and I remember Liam Tracy the artist who showed me how too see what i’m seeing now he told me I was an artist and too continue. That was 43 years ago and I have teers in my eyes and I wonder if I thanked him, Thank you Liam you were a great leader.


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