3 Ways to Respond to a Controlling Leader

One,Two or Three list written on a blackboard

I have written a good deal recently about controlling leadership.

Read ways people respond to controlling leadership and some warning signs you may be a controlling leader.

Most of my posts stem from current or past experience in leadership. Since I’ve been blogging on leadership, I have talked with dozens individuals in ministry or business who experience this type of leader. It impacts their personal leadership, as well as the health of their organization — and honestly, even their own personal health. Many younger leaders have told me they feel a controlling leader not only controls their work — but their career and their life.

And, the issue of controlling leadership seems to be more in discussion now than ever in my leadership career. And, that’s true in the church also. I hear almost weekly about a senior pastor who controls every decision in the church — and most of the time the staff culture is very unhealthy — even toxic.

One theory I have is that younger leaders want a voice at the table early in their leadership. They are intersecting with seasoned leaders who are trying to hold on to power. I get that. But, how should a younger leader respond?

I previously wrote a post about “leading up“. Please read that post first. Although it addresses a more senior leader who may not be giving a younger leader a seat at the table — not one who is necessarily a controlling leader. But, some of those principles apply here also. For example, I do think it’s important to respect a leadership position — even controlling leadership — especially if you intend to continue in the position.

Controlling leadership appears to be a more difficult issue, however. A leader who attempts to control everything within his or her realm is much harder to influence.

So, here is my answer when I’m asked how to respond — long-term at least — to a controlling leader. You basically have three options, in my opinion. These three are summaries — and there are probably multiple points under each one — but three and no more.

Here are 3 ways you can respond to a controlling leader:


I have had people challenge me 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 consider the other two options before considering this option — but sometimes the best thing for the individual and the organization is to make a fresh start. And, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that if that is indeed the only option. It should not be a rash or a vindictive decision, you should attempt to leave on the best terms possible, but you simply may not mesh with this particular leadership style. And, to be true to yourself and have integrity in your loyalty you may have to seek another environment that allows you to better grow as a leader and person. I have seen too many people stay too long. And, sometimes they stay for all the wrong reasons. It could be fear, a false sense of loyalty or just because they think they have no other options. It injures them, the rest of the team, and interrupts the progress towards a vision that hopefully is bigger than any one person.

(You might read my post on 10 ways to know it’s time to quit.)


You can learn to live with what you’ve got in a leader. There are seasons where you have no choice. You can’t find anything new and you need the work. (Sometimes we call those seasons — life.) There are also times God has placed you where you are for a reason. You’ll learn a lot from the situation — even with a controlling leader. If nothing more, you can use the time to reinforce how you will someday lead differently. If you compromise — if you stay — you should remain respectful, even loyal. You should do your best work, have a positive attitude towards others, and attempt to make life better for those around you. That’s the right thing to do. We don’t get an excuse from Biblical principles because we don’t agree with the leadership. If you can’t, one of the other options should be your choice, in my opinion.


This is almost always the best option. Most leaders — even controlling leaders — have areas in which they are willing to admit they need help. Much of their willingness to do so will be based on the degree of trust placed in others or how important an issue is to them personally. Working to build a relationship of trust and seeking common ground on issues allows some people to excel under a controlling leader. If the leader sees you not as a threat, but as a compliment to their leadership, they may be more willing to invite your input.

To get there will require a risk on your part. You’ll have to gracefully challenge the controlling leadership. Like it or not, most complex issues do not disappear on their own. A good question to ask yourself: “Will I be content if this environment continues for the next year or longer?” Also, “Do I think it’s time to move on to something else?” If the answer to both questions is no, then the best option may be to challenge the controlling leadership — attempting to get to some collaborative work — where you can do meaningful work for which you feel valued — and less controlled. It should be noted that you can’t challenge anyone daily, so a challenge like this should be planned, considerate, and infrequent, but it may be this is the best option or the only one with which you can live. And, it may take one person to introduce change to the rest of the organization. (In my next post, I’ll get more specific with how to do this type challenge.)

Let me offer this closing reminder:

Every situation is unique and so no post can answer your specific situation. These are very broad, general responses. Your response may fit someone between one of them (probably between the second and third.) 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)

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

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

  1. Another sobering thing I was thinking about was the church planter may not be the right person to be manager/ lead pastor long term , which takes incredibly good listening skills. He might need to elect a lead pastor to over see everything while he stays on as preaching pastor or navigator/vision casting.

  2. I just want to say these are very good. It’s easy to see you have a lot of experience with these. I just want to say that it’s really easy for leaders to mistake friendships (like when you’re in high school and on a football team) and growth and maturity and empowering of team members to do the job. Or people who believe in the mission and serve others in service . ( I don’t know if there’s a word for that, I wasn’t quite sure how to say that.) A lot of leaders who first start out or are younger are controling ( rookie mistake) takes time to learn to do it well. That’s why you shouldn’t rush being head leader. But learn while your second/ assist how it works how do they do it.

    But I would ask for tastes of leadership like running a meeting, etc. , so you can practice. (The leader should be about delegating anyway.)

    In the OT you see God empowering His people in Exodus- Deuteronomy , by giving them responsibility and walking along side them, even as He led them.

    To many people make the mistake of Nebucannezzer and make it all about themselves and their ego (Daniel 3:1-28), instead of the mission and serving God and others. The leaders empower their followers that understand that.

    Like john the baptiser. He knew he was just leading but there was a bigger picture. John 3:30.

    Most people who ride horses, although they are leading the horse, — there is a lot of communication going on with the horse. They also listen to the horse while they are leading them.

  3. 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

  4. 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!

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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!