3 Ways to Respond to a Controlling Leader

I have written a good deal recently about controlling leadership.  As most of my posts do, this stems from current or past experience in leadership.  Within the past 6 months, I have talked with close to a dozen individuals in ministry or business who are experiencing this type of leader. It is effecting their personal leadership, as well as the health of their organization.

My theory is that one reason this tension is increasing is due to young leaders who want a voice at the table early in their leadership intersecting with seasoned leaders trying to hold on to power. Perhaps I’ll write more about that in another post.

If you missed any of these posts you can read:

7 Warning Signs You May Be a Controlling Leader

3 Results of Controlling Leadership

7 Reactions to Controlling Leadership

The obvious most frequent question I receive as a result of these posts involves what to do about a controlling leader? I previously wrote a post about “leading up” called 5 Ways to Influence those Who Lead You, but it addresses a leader who may not be giving you a seat at the table, but not one who is necessarily a controlling leader. Controlling leadership appears to be a more difficult issue. A leader who attempts to control everything within his or her realm is much harder to influence.

So, here’s my best answer.  Here are three ways to respond to a controlling leader:

Challenge – Like it or not, most complex issues such as this do not disappear on their own. Ask yourself, “Will I be content if this environment continues for the next year or longer?”  If the answer is no, then you may have to challenge the controlling leadership. It should be noted that you can’t challenge anyone daily.  A challenge should be planned, considerate, and infrequent, but there are times where this is the best option.

Compromise – Most controlling leaders have areas in which they are willing to compromise.  Much of his or her willingness to do so will be based on the degree of trust placed in others or how important an issue is to them personally.  Building a relationship of trust and seeking common ground on issues allows some people to excel under a controlling leader.

Quit – If one is not willing to challenge the issue or can find no areas for compromise, the only solution, other than remaining miserable under controlling leadership, is to seek opportunities elsewhere. I had someone challenge me on Twitter recently that winners never quit, but I disagree. If you were placed in a position by a call of God, this may not be an option until God releases you and I personally would attempt the first two options before considering this option, but sometimes the best thing for the individual and the organization is to make a fresh start.  (You might read my post 8 Ways to Know it’s Time to Quit.)

Let me offer this closing reminder: Every situation is unique and so no post can answer your specific situation.  One thing that all situations share, however, is that regardless of how one responds, each of us have an obligation to be humble, kind, gracious people.  In either of these three steps we should behave likewise.  Also, remember that your response to a controlling leader often determines his or her response.  Momma always said “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  The Bible says it another way…”A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  (Proverbs 15:1)

Have you ever worked with or for a controlling leader?  How did you respond? What steps am I missing? Help us learn from your experience.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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20 thoughts on “3 Ways to Respond to a Controlling Leader

  1. I am currently in a church with a controlling leader. What is troubling for me is that anyone with any healthy sense of independence has left the church. The rest now are followers including my wife. It feels so alone to be the only one who sees this. My wife won't hear of me mention anything about it at home. Not only that, I am on the leadership and just recently received my ministers credentials. It was this Minister who performed the credential ceremony.
    At Christmas time, the Minister criticized the leadership to the congregation as well as a former worship leader who left the church. He was on a rant and said all sorts of negative statement. He does this on occasion at bible studies as well.
    Then later on in the week, a second leader approached me, he felt he was being manipulated by the Minister and asked for my support. At the following leadership meeting we all challenged him together,3 of us and our wives. We all agreed including him that what was said and done was not right. The Ministers wife broke down and cried claiming she had spent her life defending him and now needed to take a brake and go find herself.and her purpose. It seemed a healthy restoration was in the works until the next leadership meeting.
    Unknown to me, the two leaders capitulated earlier in the week. I was left out there all alone feeling quite stunned. The Minister came in full authority and proclaimed that he is the boss. Since that time, all I tend to get is snippy and coy responses. The Ministers wife recovered quickly as well and is in full authority. Can't say much to her anymore or she will snap back at me. Kinda feeling alone.
    I am the newer member and apparently I am learning that this kind of stuff has been going on for years. Others have been through this and have left. For me, I am trying to hang in there with a good attitude to keep my credentials and trust that God has a purpose for me in this (somewhat like Joseph) and hopefully the Lord will call me out to another purpose and relieve me of this difficult situation.
    Thanks for listening

  2. I would offer one piece of advice: When using the confrontation step, be sure of 2 things. 1) Be sure of the audience you have. If it is one of his choosing, you will not have to choose the third option, they will do it for you! 2) Make sure you do it with heart not filled with anger! You're trying to make the situation better, not worse, which means Ministry! This can only be done in Christ only. I am there, I am doing that! Not easy, not quick!

  3. Any chance there is an upcoming post or two on how/when/where to confront a controlling leader? Especially for those of us who have had it drilled into our heads from childhood to not question authority? Some practical, nitty gritty tips would be really helpful!

  4. Ron,
    Compromise sounds like the best solution of the 3, but a controlling leader quite often thinks he/she is the only one that has the right answer, so there's a good chance it won't work.

    If the controlling is impossible to follower, quitting would be the best choice. Sometimes it's the only solution, especially if you're protecting your own values.


    • Thanks Connie. I agree that controlling leaders think their right. It takes a lot of discipline to realize others may have the best answer.

  5. Thanks for the encouragement & insight. I’ve gone thru steps 1 & 2 and even let my controling leader know I’m considering step 3(looking for other opportunities) I found that once I did that it, opened up the lines of communication btwn us that has led to more productive results w/in our team, and a more trusting relationship. It also served as a gauge as to how he really valued my partnership in ministry, as he has responded positively in being less controlling.
    Or u can just email ur leader this blog and title the subject line “Great read!” lol

  6. I'm so glad you are addressing the issue of controlling leadership! Most people in these situations are told that they are "divisive" and upsetting the spiritual unity of their group, all the while fighting the feeling that this is just not OK. I wrote a post a while back about this very thing. I don't usually add links to comments, so I used it for my website ID on my comment if you'd like to read it.

    The main tip I would give is that if you end up leaving the controlling situation, don't use it as an excuse to stop meeting with believers altogether. Find a good place where the true gospel is preached!