A case for coaching: What’s in your wallet?

Understanding the currency you trade in as a path to transformational growth

I recently had a discussion with a client, Margaret, which led to a question that got us both thinking: what is the difference between control and power?

We got to that question by trying to map out her personal psychic economy and to understand the “currency” her actions were designed to attract and spend. Margaret (name changed), a whip-smart finance expert who had long ago established her indispensability, had been asked by her organization’s CEO to step into a more assertive leadership role. “You’ve proven that you deserve a seat at the table,” the CEO had counseled, “now we want you to do more with it.” In other words, Margaret was being asked to be more than the exceptionally responsive role player she had always been and to begin proactively engaging with, and shaping, the entire organization as an enterprise leader.

Margaret was willing and even excited to rise to the challenge, but she also recognized with some trepidation that adopting this new stance would require significant, and uncomfortable, change. In the course of our work together, we had developed a kind of shorthand to describe some of the facets of this change: Be more of a boss and less of a buffer. More conviction and less irritation. And we had also touched upon the ways a demanding home life had a hand in shaping her professional life. In short, in the midst of a world where things often seemed to be uncontrollable and perhaps even teetering on the edge of some precipice, she liked getting discrete pieces of work that she could draw a line around, own, shape, and make excellent. What she did not like, and in fact had no patience for, was things done poorly, or “interference” from senior executives who wanted to contribute but only gummed up the works. Hence, she had established a workplace identity as a highly proficient expert who produced exceptional work but mostly just wanted to be left to her own devices as she plowed through tasks others set for her. Valuable, but not the profile of a high-impact leader.

In essence, Margaret’s personal economy was based on trading in control, a commodity that was scarce in many parts of her life. She sought to protect and acquire control, and she would go to considerable lengths to avoid its loss. Her emotions rose and fell as her stock of control rose or fell, and her actions were implicitly designed to manage how much control came in and how much went out.

That being the case, one way of looking at the change she was being asked to make was to imagine that she was being asked to orient around a new currency: power.

But what exactly would that mean?

Power and control are certainly not mutually exclusive, and power often confers the ability to control various things. One of the simplest definitions of power is the ability to make someone do something they otherwise would not, or not do something they otherwise would. This is what Mao had in mind when he famously declared that power comes from the end of a gun.

But a person can gain power by being willing, in certain circumstances, to cede control. Similarly, a person can surrender power and the appearance of being powerful by trying too hard to retain control.

Here’s what I mean. What we call micromanagement is typically a desire to maintain control. But when asked to describe micromanagers, people rarely say “powerful.” Instead, I typically hear things like “Sally is really tightly wound,” or “Yumi can be kind of obsessive,” or “Miguel gets really irritated if he doesn’t have his hands on everything.” Micromanagers act in ways that make sense if we see them as trying to gather and even hoard control. But they typically show up to others as, well, weak. I certainly don’t hear many people saying that a person’s desire to maintain control is what makes her or him a great leader.

On the other hand, a willingness to cede control to others is often seen as an indication of confidence, centeredness, and an ability to take appropriate risks. This is not an endorsement of negligence or dangerous detachment, but rather an operating model that allows others latitude of movement and participation in decision making. What might happen if power instead of control were one’s currency? Here are the answers Margaret came up with, in her own words.

  • Openness to unexpected outcomes. A control mindset is often brittle, based in fear that any outcome outside a very narrow range of possibilities will be bad. Letting go of micromanagement opens up space for others’ creativity and contributions. At the same time, it opens up a lot of risks – conflict and criticism among them. There is power in showing that one has the patience and courage to face these risks. Of course, having power as a currency still entails keeping some level of control so that a project does not go off the rails. But there’s more breathing room for everyone involved.
  • Seeing people as peers rather than as problems. Implicit in allowing others to co-create a solution is trust in their ability to do things well. It also implies trust in one’s own ability – to lead, coach, and persuade others to perform at a high level. Convincing is different from controlling; it requires more finesse, give-and-take, and patience.
  • Operating at a higher plane of abstraction. The control mindset often entails a hyper-focus on details at the expense of the bigger picture. Using power as a currency does not mean abandoning details, but rather being able to be more reflective about details – why care about a particular detail? What are the trade-offs in different solutions? And what other topics should one be focusing on as well?

Margaret is still trying on, and trying out, this new orientation, but she can already point to moments where she is recognizing and passing on her tendency to optimize control, and the results are promising. And now she has a conceptual framework that helps her articulate a development path that entails both a fundamental shift in her values, assumptions, and sense making, as well as new behaviors and actions. In our experience, this is a strong foundation for transformational growth.