Why Being in Control is Not the Same as Being a Leader

I very clearly remember my initial gut reaction to being offered my first promotion to a senior leadership position. It was a mixture of emotions, and while pride and excitement were present, I was a little surprised to realize that equally intense was a feeling of fear.



The idea of a sudden jump up the totem pole was flattering, exciting and alluring, but at the same time, it was scary. The more I thought about it, the more nervous I became. I knew the senior position offered some cool perks, like a higher salary and greater authority, but it also came with much greater responsibility and higher expectations. As “the boss,” I would no longer be able to simply pass difficult decisions up the chain of command.


And even more significantly, the buck would stop here.


When things went wrong or if someone on my team made a mistake, I would be the one to accept responsibility and take the blame. If there was more work to be done than employees to go around, I would be the one to pick up the slack. If a task needed to be completed after hours, I would be the first to volunteer. Disgruntled customers would be funneled to me. Broken equipment would be my responsibility to get repaired. I would be the one to resolve employee conflict, address misconduct and determine disciplinary measures.


Just thinking about it all was enough to make my knees quake.


I seriously considered declining the promotion. While I’m not afraid of hard work and I learned from my very solid parents to never shirk my responsibilities, I just didn’t feel like I was ready for the job. But after much prayer and discussion with my husband, (and after considering the rather unpleasant alternatives), I said yes. And guess what. The position was even tougher than I had imagined.


Yes, it was rewarding. Yes, it was good for me. Yes, it was an invaluable learning experience. But boy was it hard.


I have always liked being in control. It’s nice to have people defer to my leadership, and I definitely like getting to have the final say and make the decisions. But I discovered back then when I spent those years as the boss that there is a difference between being in control and being a leader.


Being in control is easy. And it can even be fun. I understand why people become power-hungry, because I understand the allure of being in charge. Being a controller is easy, but being a leader is very difficult:


  • Controllers make decisions because they get to. Leaders make decisions because they need to.
  • Controllers give commands in order to get their own way. Leaders provide direction in order to accomplish the task by the best means possible.
  • Controllers resentfully take responsibility for their employee’s mistakes only because they have to. Leaders humbly accept the blame because they sincerely feel responsible for their team’s actions.
  • Controllers exact punishment because they enjoy putting people in their place. Leaders employ discipline because they want to see people improve.
  • Controllers look forward to firing bad eggs because they’re getting what they deserve. Leaders regret having to fire anyone because that means they were unable to help them.


Question: Can you tell the difference between the controllers and the leaders in your life? What other distinctions do you see between the two? Add to the list in the comments below!



2 Replies to “Why Being in Control is Not the Same as Being a Leader”

  1. I actually did my darnedest to decline my recent promotion, but (oddly enough) didn’t really have much choice in the matter. I spent the first month in a roller coaster between Excitement, and Abject Terror. I’ve learned a lot being in charge, and your article paralleled so much of it.

    1. I think fear is a healthy emotion for every new leader – it keeps you humble and open to learning from new experiences.

      Admitting that you’re not sure you’re 100% ready to handle all the challenges of leadership is a sign in of itself that you have what it takes to try!

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