The value of letting go of control

Excerpted from the 3rd Chapter of the Just Released “Musings on Leadership – Life Lessons to Help You Thrive as a Leader” by Tor Mesoy

Henry Kissinger, still going strong at 93, expressed “Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.” [Quote from The New York Times, 28 Oct 1973]. Whatever our desired end is, we regularly get enamored with power and control. But power and control regularly give us a false sense of security and get in the way of our ultimate objectives. This insight should give us pause, so we step back and develop a better perspective on our desire for power and control.

Recently, I ran a leadership development program just outside Copenhagen. With a group of leaders, I explored how to build and strengthen strategic, trust-based relationships. One of the ways we explored was to be genuinely curious, listen deeply and ask open-ended questions, for example:

  • What are you aspiring to?
  • What (about this) makes you most excited?
  • What concerns you most?
  • What would the ideal outcome (of this initiative) look like?
  • What would happen if you did nothing?

It is of course not about rattling off these questions. It is about being genuinely curious, listening in an appreciative manner and giving the other person space to think and to speak, freely. When we do this well, we open up the space for the other person and we may help them understand more about themselves and about how they relate to the world.

One of the participants in the leadership development program (let us call him Walter) looked at this list of questions and balked: “But if I ask these kinds of questions, the other person may go off on a tangent, and I might lose control of the meeting.”

A poignant moment. After a pregnant pause, the conversation went (roughly) like this:

I: “Walter, when you speak with you wife, do you seek to always be in control?”

Walter: “No, of course not.”

I: “Why?”

Walter: “Well, she would not like that and it would signal a low level of trust.”

I: “Hmm. Yes, I see that… How do you think it works in a professional setting, when you seek to maintain tight control of a dialog?”

Walter saw the connection and gained a new perspective on his desire to “be in control”. In a good conversation, all participants are learning something new, but this requires full presence and it involves listening with an open mind and an open heart.

Otto Scharmer, senior lecturer at MIT, describes four levels of listening:

Level 1: Downloading: At this level we are mainly attuned to reconfirming our biases. We do not expect to learn anything new. Sometimes we follow social protocol and we refrain from interrupting, but in reality, we are merely waiting to present our rebuttal.

Level 2: Factual listening: At this level, we pay attention to facts and data. We are prepared to learn, but the learning is quite superficial.

Level 3: Empathetic listening: At this deeper level, we engage in real dialog and we pay careful attention to body language, tone of voice, pitch and pace to discern where the other person is coming from. This represents a profound shift in the place from which our listening originates. This allows us to see how the world appears through the other person’s eyes.

Level 4: Generative listening: At this most profound level, we slow down and all participants listen to what is said and to what is not said, to the possibilities that might emerge from that which is shared. Scharmer uses the term “grace” to describe the texture of this experience. That might sound esoteric, but we know it when we experience it. And we know that such listening can trigger truly transformative new insights. And we know that such listening is antithetical to “being in control”. No one is “in control” when we listen to one another at this deep level.

Another way to come at this is the following take on three ways to ask questions. Think about the question “Why did you do this?” and imagine someone asking it in the following three ways:

1: We can ask as an investigator, perhaps seeking to apportion blame or responsibility

2: We can ask as a scientist, dispassionately seeking to uncover the facts, to understand linkages

3: … or we can ask as a lover, at a romantic dinner, in a quest to connect deeply to the other person, to fully appreciate and savor the value of the other, to understand in order to build unity and a common future

Asking as an investigator or as a scientist is entirely compatible with “being in control”. Asking as a lover is not. While the metaphor is simple, we – and the people we work with – might benefit from shifting our listening to the deeper level.

The conversation with Walter made me reflect deeply: where can I, personally, let go of control to a greater extent, and explore with an open mind, an open heart and an open will? I sense that there is much more to discover, and I want to practice, systematically.

Note from Bob:  You can purchase the Kindle Edition “Musings on Leadership: Life Lessons to Help You Thrive as a Leader” – Just released this week – by clicking “HERE”

Tor Mesoy


Tor Mesoy is the Founder and Managing Director of Agnus Consulting a Hong Kong based firm that delivers strategic consulting services, leadership development and executive coaching to clients around the world.


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